American Pastoral* is allegedly Philip Roth’s magnum opus; I think it’s a magnum shotgun that he used to shoot himself in the foot. In my opinion, the 1997 novel is terribly off-putting; yet, it won the Pulitzer Prize and it’s listed in Time’s All-Time 100 Novels (but then again, so is Naked Lunch). Why do I disagree with the larger literary world consensus?
American Pastoral is #1 of Roth’s “American Trilogy”. I Married a Communist is #2 and The Human Stain is #3. Roth likes to write fiction rooted in historical fact. As a result, his works often serve as a critique of the time period and a reflection of the culture’s values. American Pastoral follows a wealthy, successful family in New Jersey in the 1960s. The main character, Seymour, represents the American dream: attractive, patriotic family man who works hard, respects others, and capitalizes on opportunity. On the surface, he’s killing it; beneath the surface, everything is falling apart. In the end, we discover “the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things” (Roth, 423).
Fortunately, there are plenty of novels that take conventional American ideals and turn them on their head without boring you to death (ahem, anything by Steinbeck). Put simply, Roth uses too many words about too many uninteresting, unimportant things. He fixates on minutia. He’ll reveal a shocking plot point and then belabor us with superfluous fact until we’re totally sidetracked. When an object is mentioned, we know its color, size, and manufacturer. Description can sometimes be effective, but in Roth’s case, it’s consistent sensory overload in a way that detracts from the meat of the story. I’m a Texan. Don’t take away my meat.
To add insult to injury, he moves through past, present, and future too much. He transitions fluidly—we know what era he’s referring to—but it’s often unnecessary. I find myself repeatedly wanting him to stay on course and complete a thought without interjecting a flashback. I appreciate Roth’s time hopping much more in The Plot Against America because it serves a purpose every time.
Overall, I valued American Pastoral more during the process of synthesizing and reviewing the novel than when I was actively reading. Because of the length and nonlinear timing, I discovered connections and mystery while looking back. I believe that Roth possesses a unique skill in accomplishing that specific feat, but it does not totally override the fact that a real-time reading of the text is arduous and unenjoyable. American Pastoral receives 2 out of 5 camel humps.
*Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.