American Pastoral by Philip Roth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 423 pp)

Philip Roth is a novelist born in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Bucknell University and earned his M.A. in English literature from the University of Chicago. He taught at the University of Iowa, Princeton University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Roth has earned numerous awards during his career including, the National Book Award, the National Book Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Franz Kafka Prize.

Plot and Structure

I’m reading a book on plot and structure. It provides a fascinating look under the hood of narrative and story. One revealing item that now seems self-evident surrounds the differentiation between literary fiction and popular fiction. I look back on past book discussions and remember the times I’ve stated something along the lines of “A signifier of literary fiction is a lack of plot.” Such a belief appears to coincide with the state of writing we all see. Consider the difference between Catcher in the Rye and a Tom Clancy novel. What exactly does Holden Caulfield do during Salinger’s story? Not much as he wanders New York, right? Whereas, Tom Clancy sends his characters around the world in gripping action.

But this book on plot and structure argues that both story examples have plot and structure, the difference lies in an external and internal focus. Popular fiction offers a story where external forces constantly compel a character forward—think explosions, spies, and lots of airports. Literary fiction, instead, focuses inwardly on the development of a character. What factors are leading the character to change his/her mind? To grow up?

An Inward Focus

Philip Roth’s critically acclaimed American Pastoral defines this inward aspect of plot and structure found in literary fiction.

American Pastoral’s narrative and meta narrative situates itself on one man, Seymour “Swede” Levov and his desire for that perfect American life as well as the derailment of that life.

Told through the narration of Nathan Zuckerman, a writer and admirer of the Swede from their days in high school, American Pastoral is a book within a book, as Zuckerman writes the story of the Swede based on his own impressions and beliefs about the internal turmoil Levov faced.

Externally, the Swede possesses the critical components of the American dream. He owns a successful glove manufacturing facility in New Jersey; he marries Miss New Jersey, Dawn. He has a beautiful daughter.

Destruction of Family

And yet, circumstances and the revolutionary cultural milieu of the mid-sixties has caused the unthinkable in his life, as his teenaged daughter sets off a bomb in protest of the war and accidentally kills an innocent bystander.

“The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk” (86).

This pivotal moment wrecks Levov and the majority of the book centers and the Swede’s long-term reactions and outcomes to this tragedy.

“That is the outer life. To the best of his ability, it is conducted just as it used to be. But now it is accompanied by an inner life, a gruesome inner life of tyrannical obsessions, stifled inclinations, superstitious expectations, horrible imaginings, fantasy conversations, unanswerable questions. Sleeplessness and self-castigation night after night. Enormous loneliness” (173).

Truthfully, this book took me a year to finish. The internal roiling of Seymour Levov’s spirit does not provide for riveting summer reading and the book got lost in the shuffle.

But, Roth’s beautiful prose kept the book on the radar and I knew it would be worth finishing. American Pastoral is an excellent example of the internal, character-based nature of literary fiction, but it’s not for everybody. I started it at the wrong time last year and only just recently picked it back up. But I’m glad I did.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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