Tuesday 13 April 2010

Johnny Appleseed

This is coincidentally the second Pulitzer Prize winner that I have read recently (though looking down the list I have previously read quite a few others, but then never even heard of many of the authors .... now there would be an interesting challenge.) Initially it was called the 'Pulitzer Prize for the Novel' until 1947, then renamed the 'Pulitzer Prize for Fiction'. American Pastoral by Philip Roth has been quite a challenging read. I have not quite finished it and decided to review it now mainly to stop myself focussing on the 'story', to allow myself to just read the writing, to get the essence of what he is trying to say. In fact I find myself hoping desperately that there is not a nice neat ending, but something suitably inconclusive.

This book is one of the group known as the 'Zuckerman' novels, which contain the character Nathan Zuckerman. Well, he's not exactly a character, more the narrator of the tale, except in the first part, where he establishes the background to the story, how he is connected to the protagonist, the Swede, how he came to be telling his story, and then he takes up that story leaving his own small part in it far behind.

I have not read anything else by Philip Roth but the Wiki page (the integrity of which is much respected but cannot be taken to be without flaws) informs me that the dissection of the 'American Dream' is an ongoing theme in much of his writing. It is certainly what is going on in this book. Seymour Levov, or the Swede, is an all-american boy, sports hero (idealised to the point of worship by his whole community), marine and married to a former beauty queen. Coming from jewish immigrant background, his family established a glove manufacturing business that he enters after leaving the army, and takes over subsequently from his father. The other recurrent theme in his writing is his (the author's, but also many of his characters') Judaism and the shared experience of immigration, prejudice and their cultural heritage. The Swede's only rebellion is to marry a gentile (in fact a catholic), though the family appear to be secular, not religious, Jews their identity and membership of the jewish community is central to their lives. It is not that he rejects anything about his heritage, it is just that it is less important to him than this overarching idea that he has of being 'american'. His relationship with his father is an ongoing theme through the book. He is a forceful and domineering influence on his life.

"Conflicting Jewish desires awakened at the sight of him were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphant spectacle of this Swede who was actually only another of our neighbourhood Seymours whose forebears had been Solomons and Sauls and who would themselves beget Stephens who would in turn beget Shawns. Where was the Jew in him? You couldn't find it yet you knew it was there." (p.20)

Since his teenage years all he has yearned for is an idyllic life, that he sets out to create for himself. He knows the house he wants to buy, the girl he wants to marry, and the child, swinging on the swing he will hang from the maple tree, who will run to greet him on his return at the end of the day. He is partly a product of the naive post-war optimism, and a political and social system that told people they lived in the best of all possible worlds. He lives his life exactly according to other people's expectations, utterly selfless, but at the same time self-indulgent and utterly without imagination (that sounds contradictory, but he does seem to manage to be both).

"The responsibility of the school hero follows him through life. Noblesse oblige. You're the hero, so then you have to behave in a certain way. - there is a prescription for it. You have to be modest, you have to be forbearing, you have to be deferential, you have to be understanding. And it all began - this heroically idealistic manoeuvre, this strategic, strange spiritual desire to be a bulwark of duty and ethical obligation" (p.79)

It's as if he views the world through rose coloured spectacles, sees only what he wants to see, determined that he is in control of life, shaping it to his own design. I titled the post 'Johnny Appleseed' because he is kind of symbolic of the Swede's idea about his life, and his naivety, and because it reminded me that we used to sing the song as a grace when I was in the Guides:

"Wasn't a Jew, wasn't an Irish Catholic, wasn't a Protestant Christian - nope, Johnny Appleseed was just a happy American. Big. Ruddy. Happy. No brains probably, but didn't need 'em - a great walker was all Johnny Appleseed needed to be. All physical joy." (p.316)

This first part of the book is entitled 'Paradise Remembered' and it tells of life as the Swede wants it to be, his childhood and family history. As his daughter Merry grows up, a childhood marred only by her stuttering, she moves further and further from the confines of their family unit, developing a political viewpoint born of her earlier single-mindedness. Strangely I had not read the 'blurb' on the back cover telling me that she would be the cause of all the trouble but by the time I got to the end of the first part I could see it coming, and my main reaction was 'be careful what you wish for':

"And that was the last conversation they ever had about New York. It worked. Interminable, but he was patient and reasonable and firm and it worked. As far as he knew, she did not go to New York agin. She took his advice and stayed home, and, after turning their living room into a battlefield, after turning Morristown High into a battlefield, she went out one day and blew up the post office" (p.113)

The second part of the book is 'The Fall' and it recounts the destruction that was meted out on the Swede's carefully constructed image of his life. Merry disappears from their lives and everything he thought he had built is gone. His life is meaningless, and he cannot understand, because he was so convinced by his own version of reality. So he makes a new reality, a story that explains her behaviour, that acts as a comfort, that she was used and misled and exploited by others, that this was not really her actions at all. I was left as confused as the Swede by Rita, a 'co-conspirator', who tells him all sorts of things about Merry, her actions and her whereabouts, that make no sense. She destroys in turn all his memories of Merry's childhood by claiming to know Merry's true feelings about her family. And then finally, after several years of suspense, he finds Merry again, and she tells a wholly different story, one that disrupts his life all over again, by totally undermining the safe little explanation he had built up for himself and his family, their belief in Merry's essential innocence. You are left unsure, not knowing what the real story is, but I think this is all part of the essence of the book, that so much is unknowable.

The story hops backwards and forwards in time, mixing up their life 'post bomb' with telling the background of Merry's childhood, but not sequentially, just random memories, things that seemed significant, often with the Swede reflecting on them, trying to find some reason or explanation for this new reality. It was an interesting writing technique, describing in detail some current event and then suddenly flashing back to a memory. It gave you a real sense of how wholly preoccupied the Swede is with Merry, as if we are following the meanderings of his thoughts, and then just as suddenly coming back to the ongoing story. At one point he is remembering a school incident, where the teacher branded Merry as 'stubborn' because she refused to conform to what the teacher thought was an appropriate response to an assignment. The question to the class was "What is life?" (this is in a Montessori school):

"According to Merry, while the other students laboured busily away with their phony deep thoughts, she - after an hour of thinking at her desk - wrote single unplatitudinous declarative sentence: 'Life is just a short period of time in which we are alive.' "You know," said the Swede, "it's smarter than it sounds. She's a kid - how has she figured out that life is short? She is somethin', our precocious daughter. This girl is going to Harvard." But once again the teacher didn't agree, and she wrote beside Merry's answer "Is that all?" Yes, the Swede thought now, that is all. Thank God, that is all; even that is unendurable." (p.248)

It is quite poignant, one of many moments when the Swede realises and abandons himself to his own powerlessness, and yet he constantly struggles to try and regain the control that he thought he had at the beginning. You just know he is fighting a loosing battle. Reflecting at one point on a time early in their marriage about his 'dream':

"Why shouldn't I be where I want to be? Why shouldn't I be with who I want to be? Isn't that what this country is all about? I want to be where I want to be and I don't want to be where I don't want to be. That's what being an American is - isn't it? I'm with you, I'm with the baby, I'm at the factory during the day, the rest of the time I'm out here, and that's everywhere in the world I ever want to be. We own a piece of America, Dawn. I couldn't be happier if I tried. I did it, darling, I did it - I did what I set out to do!" (p. 315)

If there was ever a person heading for a fall it was this man. And it's not as if Roth sets him up to knock him down. He is just the figurehead for the 'dream', this absolute certainty that this life he had created was his right, almost an inevitable, undeniable right, but what he couldn't see was that it was never real, because life cannot be that certain. It is as close as a book has ever come to saying outright, 'this is the meaning of life'. The final part is called 'Paradise Lost', and it tells it like it is, how Roth viewed the inevitable loss of the dream. This earlier quote sums up very neatly the way that their lives were destroyed, how events take over, out of your control, that so much of the shape of your life is determined from outside:

"History, which had made not dramatic impingement on the daily life of the local populace since the Revolutionary War, wended its way back out to these cloistered hills and, improbably, with all its predictable unforeseenness, broke helter-skelter into the orderly household of the Seymour Levovs and left the place in a shambles. People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing." (p.87)

Then your mind goes back to the beginning of the story. Zuckerman is having dinner with the Swede, and he has to sit through the tedious spiel of the proud parent, the minutiae of the lives and achievements of his three sons, and it is only later, when he meets the brother at a class reunion and learns about the existence of Merry that it becomes clear that all he was trying to do was convince himself, and Zuckerman, that he was still in control, that life was not just crazy and unpredictable. The narrator comments at one point that the structure of his life was dictated by one "circumstantial absurdity" (his physical prowess) and was ended by another, a bomb.

There is so much going on in this book it is impossible to do justice to it. It is a very challenging social commentary, but then at the same time is making a lot of political observations too. It is also, in my view, a book about being a parent, and had some parallels with 'We Need to talk about Kevin', which is narrated by the mother of a boy who has committed mass murder (which I hope to re-read and review for you some time). Alongside trying to make sense of the destruction of his life the Swede is also trying to fathom out his own failure as a parent, how Merry could become someone who acts the way she does. He searches through his memories and her childhood desperately trying to understand what went wrong. Then there is Dawn, his wife and Merry's mother; a woman who spends her life trying not to be defined by her experience of being Miss New Jersey. I was disappointed that I never got inside her head more. In spite of Dawn's efforts to be a more rounded ordinary woman, her husband continues to be spellbound in a rather clich├ęd way by her physical beauty. Equally I wanted to know Merry, but we only ever know her through he father's thoughts and observations. I wanted to follow her story, to know what had happened to her years in hiding, to know where her life went after her reappearance, but was in the end denied. In fact, looking back, all of the female characters in the book are rather shadowed by events, not significant as individuals to the Swede's life, only important in their 'role'.

This was a hard book to get in to. The writing is very dense; long descriptions that are scene setting and important background atmosphere, but somewhat dull to read (all the stuff about the glove manufacturing industry bored me). There was something of Virginia Woolf about his writing, very long convoluted sentences, with endless sub-clauses that sometimes make you lose track of where the sentence is going, so you have to concentrate pretty hard. But the more I read the more I became used to his style, but still often only read a few pages at a time. All in all an excellent book and I am sure I will read something else by Philip Roth at some point, definitely a writer to get the brain cells working hard.

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