american pastoral

So I finished the Roth. Actually, I skipped a lot of it. Longtime readers will know of, if not actually care about, my unease with the American masters Bellow, Roth and Updike – ie, my suspicion that they suck. I thought The Dean’s December must have been an embarrasingly inferior Bellow until someone told me it was his masterpiece.

American Pastoral has long, long passages on bewildered grief and frustration so precisely tuned to my current underlying mood that I could have underlined them and written in the margins “It’s so true!” if the previous owner of the book hadn’t already done that for me, at least for the first five chapters. Trouble is, I don’t really see this as artful. The word that comes to mind is lugubrious: woeful to the point of ridiculousness. The phrase that comes to mind is Yeah, and so?

On the one hand I could argue that I want my fiction to be transcendent: shot through with wit and irreverence and embodying the ability to distance oneself from the grey muck of despair, not to wallow in it. On the other hand I remember Professor Brown disagreeing with my preference for Paul Muldoon over Seamus Heaney: “I like Muldoon very much,” he said, “but compared with Heaney he’s just clever for cleverness’s sake.”

Professor Brown made a lot of unshowy but very deep comments like that, to my lasting benefit, and I now think he was absolutely right about Muldoon and Heaney. But Heaney still has wit and transcendence in abundance, especially compared to Roth; it’s just used in the service of the work, not as the point of it. Heaney lets the gesture speak for itself. Roth spells every damn thing out, leaves nothing to the imagination, suggests nothing, hints at nothing, leaves absolutely nothing unsaid. I feel bludgeoned.

I think my favourite moment in American fiction is still that scene in Nabokov where Pnin is doing the washing up and thinks he has broken his crystal bowl, but he hasn’t. Although I like Alex’s favourite moment too, in White Noise, where the father sees his little daughter whispering in her sleep, and leans close to hear what she’s saying, and it is “Toyota Corolla”, and his heart breaks with love.

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