Wednesday, July 7, 2010

American Pastoral

It has taken me a hundred or so years to finish this novel and I have to admit that I still have 80 pages left to read. I am not a slow reader; average, perhaps a bit quicker than that, but this book rests deep in the mind. Philip Roth goes farther into the human mind than most novels will ever dare to go. The entire novel is inner monologue; what is never spoken.

The storyline is this: an American family spirals out of control. The father is a high school sports hero who takes over his father's business after the war. The mother is a beauty queen who values intellect over beauty. They have 1 daughter who is raised with love and lessons and good intentions. Everything is in place; it is as it should be. Correct and just decisions were made, people drank coffee and read the Sunday paper. The father assumes everything has turned out to be a white picket fence American dream family. Until. Until the daughter grows up to be a political extremist who bombs the local drugstore and kills someone. She continues to kill in the name of politics and goes underground. Years later the father finds her in a convent of sorts living as a minimalist or as the book calls a "Jain". A religious group vowing to kill nothing including germs, plants or animals. Most people who follow it, starve to death.

The storyline is interesting, though the book is repetitive, but a much larger, important question emerges from the story. It is simply, "why"? The father cannot understand why his normal American way of parenting could create this. He cannot understand, the reader cannot either. As the reader you feel for the father and the mother and their once peaceful existence being ripped apart by a daughter who offers no apologies.

Beyond feeling for the family, what does this story mean for the reader? Can we assume things will work out if we try to make the right and moral decisions in our lives? I got married to a good person, finished my education before having children, raise my kids the best I can with the best intentions and love, but does this guarantee my children will at the very least live decent lives? Will I grow old with the man I have chosen? We all have certain expectations of how our life will be. We might disappoint ourselves when we make a bad choice, but we will always rebound back to the place that we expect will lead us to where we want to be. All of us know we cannot predict the future, but I would guess, even knowing this, that most of us are tied heavily to the future we want for ourselves. What do you see as your future? And, what happens if you are someplace you never expected to be? What if things are completely different than the expectations you once held?

I would hope to raise my kids so that they are loving people in respectable jobs. I would hope that when the kids leave for college or military or whatever trade they choose, my husband and I would travel the world. We would pay off our house and buy a boat and sail. I might even publish a book or two and my husband would retire at 55. It may sound completely idealistic, but it is the truth of how I see the future and it is quite possible it may happen. But there is also a possibility it may not. Maybe one of my children will not become a political extremist, but someone could get sick, my husband could loose his job, our house could be foreclosed on. This novel lives in that space. The space between what we see as our future and what really happens. But, what makes it even more interesting is the lack of logic or sound reason. There is no cause and effect. The mother and father do not make a choice that lead to the daughter's demise; it happened despite what they gave to her. It is a story underlining the lack of control we have and highlighting the control we think we have. It is an interesting space to write about, a foggy idea that emerged into a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

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