Customer Review

135 of 143 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 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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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 11 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 20, 2007 2:05:59 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 20, 2007 2:06:39 AM PDT
theta says:
Re: "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."

I think you've got it backward. There really were radical anti-Vietnam bombers who managed (inadvertantly) to kill persons. FACTUALLY this story is plausible, but EMOTIONALLY it rings false.

Re: "Also, keep in mind that Zuckerman is the book's narrator, and he is imagining nearly all of the story."

This might make sense if Zuckerman really figured in the story in any significant way, but he doesn't. Anyway you slice it, the story still has to work in and of itself.

Re: "He [Zuckerman] 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."

For all practical purposes, in this book Zuckerman IS Roth. Sure, ROTH is "trying" to do these things--and FAILING.

Posted on Dec 28, 2008 11:09:39 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 28, 2008 11:14:38 PM PST
Excellent point (to the original reviewer). Thank you. To the previous commenter, it does matter that Zuckerman is used as a framing device: it makes the book's ample artifice EXPLICITLY ARTIFICE, drawing attention for example to the not-so-subtle symbolism of an inexplicable monster-daughter - which is, of course, Roth's artifice. That sentence sounds like meta-critical nonsense, but I believe it parses.

Posted on Jun 22, 2009 10:53:13 AM PDT
Libra says:
Merry Levov could be considered a representative of the snake in the Garden that drove Swede out of Eden and forced reality on the world. True, Merry is not portrayed as sympathetically as is Swede, but what is wrong with destroying facades? Roth uses Zuckerman as narrator, and then has Zuckerman imagine how Swede must have imagined that his downfall was founded on some failure of his own. Roth is using this narrative device in order not to provide answers.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2010 1:05:30 AM PDT
Paul Sparks says:
To the original poster: Thank you. Well put and astounding clarity. The allegory point is especially helpful--making this amazing novel even more powerful.

Posted on Jan 16, 2011 2:21:28 PM PST
I am impressed at the thoughtfulness of the people who also find this a compelling book, as I do. For me, the daughter character wasn't as much a repudiation of the entire 60's into a tear-down-the-establishment era. Implicit was that the 60's went on to tangle with some life or death earth shaking issues. But this post World War II respite was a break in the cycle of cataclysmic changes that should also be harvested for its lessons.

Here's a nice passage:

"The shift was not slight between the generations and there was plenty to argue about: the ideas of the world they wouldn't give up; the rules they worshipped, for us rendered all but toothless by the passage of just a couple of decades of American time; those uncertainties that were theirs not ours. The question of how free of them we might dare to be was ongoing, an internal debate. ambivalent and exasperated. What was most cramping in their point of view a few of us did find the audacity to strain against, but the intergenerational conflict never looked like it would twenty years later. The neighborhood was never a field of battle strewn with the bodies of the misunderstood."

Marvan

Posted on Apr 23, 2012 8:47:29 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 23, 2012 8:52:49 AM PDT
corazondenj says:
I apologize for being kind of off topic but what you said in the first few sentences is just so strange and just wrong that i had to say something.

The "ingratitude" of the rioters in newark? what a odd, and inaccurate way to put it. "We gave them these wonderful housing projects where we warehoused them, isolated them, and hid them away in the inner cities, away from the suburbs so we wouldnt have to see them, we gave them institutionalized racism and less wages for the same jobs, we gave them far less opportunities than whites, we gave them housing in crumbling slums because the slumlords were the only ones who would rent to them , because the "nice" white neighborhoods wouldnt allow them in and since they earned less for the same work, they coudlnt afford it anyways; we gave them all this PLUS discrimination and endless struggle, and are they grateful and thankful like a good oppressed class should be? NO! They had the audacity, the rudeness to be frustrated and angry instead! How dare they! Such ingrates after everything we did for them!"

its just a really bizarre way to characterize the emotions of those folks involved in the riots back then. really, I have heard all kinds of stuff from people who thought it was wrong of "them" to riot, but that one just blew my mind.

Posted on Jun 9, 2012 12:53:12 PM PDT
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Posted on Apr 2, 2014 3:37:01 PM PDT
To the initial commentator,

Interesting (and good) review. Nonetheless, I also agree with Marvan Hogan's reply noting that Roth's book is not an attack on the 60s; in fact, despite the attempts of some neocons to expropriate this book for their cause, it's not even an attack on the counterculture. My quibble with the review, then, is that Mr. Klobuchar is incorrect in using "the 50s" as a metaphor for America's postwar idyll. In many respects, Woodstock was the children's version of a retreat at Old Rimrock. See Leo Marx's famous study, *The Machine in the Garden*, for an thorough discussion of the pastoral tradition in American culture -- both as aspiration and as a coping mechanism -- and of its failure, wherein "an inspiriting vision of a humane commubnity has been reduced to a token of individual survival, [with] the American hero, alone and powerless.... And if he pays tribute to the image of a green landscape, it is likely to be ironic and bitter."

The Swede's brother, Jerry, represents the neocon position: he urges the Swede to respect Merrie as an enemy (and as a living repudiation of the liberal open-mindedness and compassion Swede, in contradistinction, represents). Roth celebrates the Swede's dedication to his dream -- along with his open and caring optimism. He doesn't celebrate the loss of that world; he mourns it. Seen in that light, this is a bittersweet and stunningly profound book.

Posted on Sep 18, 2014 9:08:59 PM PDT
Parola138 says:
the rebellious spirit of the 60's deserves to be trivialized. That's the generation that ruined this whole country and left it in the sorry state its in now.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 24, 2014 5:26:16 PM PDT
Flying Scot says:
So true, Parola. Amazing how many people (most often boomers and their progeny) have stuck their heads in the sand about this. The '60s accomplished nothing less than national fratricide. (I'm not a Republican or tea party admirer. In point of fact, I am a member of the Democratic Party and vote for Democratic candidates almost without exception. But this doesn't blind me to the grievous excesses of the 1960s and succeeding generations influenced by that decade. I believe in a better life for all, not more wealth for the obscenely rich, but the '60s did nothing to seriously address that most fundamental and recalcitrant problem. It was a negative revolution, leaving only decadence and destruction in its wake.)
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