“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense.”

Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-wining American Pastoral was the title on tap for this month’s meeting of the Brown Baggers Book Group. This was the first time reading Roth for some us, while others had enjoyed previous works by the much acclaimed author. The general consensus about the book was positive, but our garrulous group still found much to discuss!

One topic of discussion was the time period and how it related to Merry’s destructive actions. Swede and his wife, as the hometown sports hero and Miss New Jersey, respectively, provided the embodiment of 1950s suburban ideals while their wild, stuttering daughter reflected the changing morals of the turbulent era of the 1960s and antiwar rebellion. We also explored the foundations of Merry’s personality and crime. The group mostly agreed that no one factor could be identified as the root cause of her problems, but we were undecided as to whether or not she might have abruptly dropped her rage as she had with other youthful obsessions.

The narrator of this novel, Nathan Zuckerman, is a frequent Roth character as well as a fictional stand-in for the author. The whole novel is fiction, but embedded inside is Nathan’s reconstruction of the Swede’s life. We discussed the choices that Zuckerman made while retelling the story as well as Roth’s decision to use him as a framing device. For example, one character that provoked strong reactions from the group was Rita Cohen: her actions, her motivations, and purpose in the story.

Both times that Zuckerman encounters the Swede in adulthood, he only witnesses the Swede’s second family full of accomplished, sporting sons. And yet, the story Zuckerman tells completely omits this and focuses on the events leading up to and immediately following Merry’s crime. The pastoral genre of literature traditionally focuses on bucolic scenes and seeks to simplify life’s motions. It’s interesting to consider how the Swede strives towards this simple ideal, while Zuckerman almost does the opposite in his telling — taking the simple life he first observed and drawing it out to flesh out the details.

“The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

Join the Brown Baggers next month to discuss The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

Further reading and information:

The New York Times book review of American Pastoral notes the “mixture of rage and elegy.” Read the full review here.

Check out the rest of JMRL’s Philip Roth collection here.

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