The Nightmare of the American Dream; Book of the Week

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Nightmare of the American Dream; Book of the Week


AMERICAN PASTORAL

BY PHILIP ROTH CAPE [pounds sterling]15.99

Like many other weighty American novels of the past few years, such as Richard Ford's Independence Day or Philip Roth's own Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral is an exploration of the recent American past. As may be imagined from this description, it is not an optimistic novel or a novel which is at all at ease with itself, or even - if one starts applying the exacting criteria of plot, pace and resolution - by strict definition a novel at all.

And yet despite - or perhaps because of - these qualities, the voices assembled to consider what one character calls the `grotesque' which is `supplanting everything that people love about this country' sound through its 400-plus pages with relentless, accusatory zest, and the whole is one of the most dazzling novels I've read in years.

Without being savagely reductive, it might be said that there are two main kinds of modern American novel. On the one hand there are the seductive little slabs of weirdness by the under-forties, in which everyone suffers from a terminal detachment from the processes of ordinary life. On the other, are a series of huge, sad, depressive books by the senior class which, by and large, are merely tirades at a nation's fall from grace.

`How did this happen?' `Who allowed this?' `What turned my country into an ash tip echoing to the sound of small-arms fire?' No contemporary American writer frames his enquiries with quite this venom, though in this book Philip Roth comes very close. But the conviction that a deep fault line of fear and loathing runs through modern American life - a fault line, more to the point, that is no longer rectifiable - works relentlessly to push these bitter, sprawling, hugely un-English books ever closer to the edge.

In Roth's last offering, Sabbath's Theater (1995), the sexually voracious hero, in old age, mused about dead and lost love. Here, Roth returns to his long-term alter ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman - now in his early sixties and trammelled by prostate surgery - the better to inspect a particular family who look as if they might embody a certain kind of American Dream of the immediately post-war era.

As an older contemporary, growing up alongside Zuckerman in wartime New Jersey, Seymour Levov (known familiarly as `Swede') seemed to symbolise the aspirations of the people around him. Never afraid to chase the zeitgeist, Zuckerman reckons that through Seymour's sporting prowess - his magical dexterity with baseball bat and basketball - `the neighbourhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world'.

Re-encountered as a silver-haired 70 year-old (when he solicits Zuckerman's advice in writing a memoir of his glove-manufacturing father), Seymour still maintains this air of consummate, commanding mystique. …

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