Saturday, February 9, 2013

American Pastoral

Philip Roth had received a lot of attention since he announced his retirement. What was especially interesting to me was how he decided to retire: by reading nearly his entire oeuvre in reverse chronological order.

And when he was done, he decided that one of his favorite books is one of my favorites too: American Pastoral.

The plot is deceptively simple: there is a man who was the golden boy of his hometown; the man marries his high school sweetheart, the prom queen, and they have a daughter; in the midst of the 1960's, the daughter gets involved with the Weathermen and blows up a post office; things fall apart.

What I love about the book is the framing tale (I'm a sucker for a story within a story, because it provides room for the readers to doubt the "truth" of we're reading). Nathan Zuckerman, hero of The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, attends his high school reunion, where he meets up with an old friend. Zuckerman learns from the old friend that the old friend's brother's life has fall apart. The friend's brother is, of course, the golden boy.

It's not a short frame, not like Heart of Darkness or Turn of the Screw (which both take just a few pages). In my 1997 edition is on page 87 before Zuckerman finally says
In earnest, right then and there, while swaying with Joy to that out-of-date music, I began to try to work out for myself what exactly had shaped a destiny unlike any imagined for the famous Weequahic three-letterman back when this music and its sentimental exhortation was right to the point, when the Swede, his neighborhood, his city, and his country were in the exuberant heyday, at the peak of confidence, inflated with every illusion born of hope.
Everything that follows is Zuckerman's fiction, interspersed with enough research to make it feel true. I can't think of a single book that tucks a story within a story the way American Pastoral does.

(Though, of course, American Pastoral functions as part of the Zuckerman epic, so it doesn't really do all of its work in a single book; and if we're going to dive all the way down the rabbit hole, in My Life as a Man, the main character writes short stories about a character named Nathan Zuckerman, so are all the Zuckerman tales really stories written by an author in a story written by Philip Roth?).

Roth loves that rabbit hole, and he explores the limits of the author's power as shaper of fiction in a number of his books. And that's why his retirement, the whole idea of there being no more Roth books, makes me so sad.

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