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Sixties at their worst
, May 20, 2002
This review is from: American Pastoral (Paperback)
One of the knocks on this book, even from reviewers who have liked it, is that it trivializes the rebellious spirit of the 1960s through the screeching lunacy of Merry Levov. There were countless examples of logical, righteous, nonviolent protest, they argue, and by showing only the thoughtless Merry and her equally deranged companion, Rita Cohen, along with the destruction of the Newark race riots (carried out by blacks who, Swede Levov seems to think, are just being ungrateful), Philip Roth comes off as someone who missed the decade altogether, perhaps in seclusion doing research for Portnoy's Complaint.
I think, however, that Roth's one-maybe-two-dimensional portrayal of Merry and the other revolutionary forces of the '60s was precisely the point. This novel was not so much about the turbulent '60s as it was about the disintegration of the '50s. The story is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman and told through the (imagined) eyes of Swede Levov, both of whom graduated high school before 1950. Roth is not only concerned with the collapse of the Swede's American dream, but also with his assimilation into American society, his pursuit and eventual attainment of the American dream -- all typical characterstics of the '50s. The Swede had no concept of the attributes which we typically ascribe to the '60s. He was too busy worrying about how to make the perfect lady's dress glove. The reason Roth did so much research and wrote in such painstaking detail about the glove industry was to tell the reader precisely what Lou and Swede Levov's lives revolved around. Since the Swede is the only character whom we see others through, of course he isn't going to question himself for being concerned with such things as D rings and piece rates. It's up to the readers to draw the inference that maybe, just maybe, the Swede is out of touch and too concerned with materialism and achieving the perfect life. This is not necessarily a terrible thing by itself.
What Roth aims to do is not to paint a 100 percent historically accurate portrait of the '60s, but instead to illustrate what a horror the '60s looked like to someone who was not a participant in the counterculture movement -- to someone who had something to lose. The best way to do that was to take the worst of that counterculture movement -- self-absorbed adolescents who raged against their successful upbringing in order to conform to the growing popularity of the rebellion -- and spill it onto the page, to show how berserk this decade was to someone who was in no way trained for it. To show how justified, cool-headed and rational some parts of the '60s revolution were would have detracted from an integral theme of the book, as imagined by the Swede: He learned "the worst lesson that life can teach -- that it makes no sense."
Also, keep in mind that Zuckerman is the book's narrator, and he is imagining nearly all of the story. He is trying, somehow, to make sense of the Swede's tragedy. It's possible that Merry really had a few more redeeming characteristics than is written, and than Jerry Levov says she did. The best way to make sense of tragedy sometimes is to say the whole world is crazy, and maybe that's what Zuckerman did, turning Merry into a raving lunatic in order to show that there was nothing the Swede could do to save her or himself. What Roth has done, with Zuckerman's help, is something along the lines Tim O'Brien talked about in his novel The Things They Carried -- to create a story that is emotionally true, if not entirely factually true.
At its core, this novel is an allegory, with the Swede representing the all-too-perfect 1950s and Merry the tumultuous, unexplainable '60s. In order to get across the full effect of this gulf, Roth had to show the '60s at their worst.
EDIT: I hadn't really looked at this review in a long time, then noticed a comment from a year and a half ago that (rightly) called me out for racist phrasing that made it sound like I was saying the black population of Newark was being ungrateful. I've edited it to reflect that I thought that Swede is the one who was thinking this, not me. It was very poor phrasing, but that phrasing was due to me not being nearly racially aware enough to realize it was poor phrasing, so I'm not going to blame a glitch in the writing. It came from me, and I'm sorry.
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