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Philip Roth: American Pastoral

Before you read the book:

I’m hooked.  The more Roth I read the more I’m convinced he is the greatest American writer alive today (and there are several great ones).  But Roth – Roth’s books are in another league.  Freshly finished with The Prague Orgy (the last book in what Vintage calls “Zuckerman Bound containing The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy) I decided to not move on to his latest “Zuckerman” novel, Exit Ghost, published last year.  Instead I chose to finally read Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winner: American Pastoral (1997).  American Pastoral also – and I was so happy – includes one of my newest favorite literary characters of all time, Nathan Zuckerman, albeit in a different role.

While “Zuckerman Bound” and Exit Ghost are written about Nathan Zuckerman, American Pastoral is written by Nathan Zuckerman, creating what has to be one of the most sophisticated and effective framing devices in all of literature.  The first section “Paradise Remembered” is Zuckerman’s reflection on how this book came about.  It’s a beautiful introduction to the themes of the novel that are displayed and flayed and displayed again in a different light and then stripped down with stunning compassion which leads to chilling effects in the last two parts, “The Fall” and “Paradise Lost.” 

Zuckerman has aged a little more than a decade since I last visited him (only a month ago) in The Prague Orgy.  It’s his forty-fifth-year high school reunion.  Events and encounters lead him to reflect on his youth and in particular on his boyhood hero: Seymour “the Swede” Levov.  The Swede is among the generation of Jews who were finally able to take full advantage of what America offered; he is descended from immigrants who had nothing, from a second-generation Jewish family that started building up a foundation, and from a father who has built a successful glove making factory.  His grandfather and then his father had to work hard, and now the Swede is set up for an easy life; he even takes on the physical features of an all-American boy.  Zuckerman idolized the Swede.  He was the perfect athlete who was raised to an even higher status since he was enacting these great athletic feats while the country engaged in World War II.  As is usual with Roth (but he still surprises me with his ability), the narrative looks at the Swede’s status from many angles: as a blessing, as an insignificant fact, as a piece of nostalgia, and as a curse.

And it all began – this heroically idealistic maneuver, this strategic, strange spiritual desire to be a bulwark of duty and ethical obligation – because of the war, because of all the terrible uncertainties bred by the war, because of how strongly an emotional community whose beloved sons were dying far away facing death had been drawn to a lean and muscular, austere boy whose talent it was to be able to catch anything anybody threw anywhere near him.  It all began for the Swede – as what doesn’t? – in a circumstantial absurdity.

Zuckerman has seen the Swede a few times since childhood, and he’s still struck with awe, still a little giddy.  One day not long before the high school reunion Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede asking him to meet him in a New York City restaurant.  The Swede’s father has died, and the Swede actually wants Zuckerman to consider helping him write a piece about his father.  While Zuckerman would never do such a thing for another person, he is too intrigued by the Swede to say no.  Zuckerman hopes to get under the surface of this apparently perfect man who has lived an apparently ideal life.

Only . . . what did he do for subjectivity?  What was the Swede’s subjectivity?  There had to be a substratum, but its composition was unimaginable.

That was the second reason I answered his letter – the substratum.  What sort of mental existence had been his?  What, if anything, had ever threatened to destabalize the Swede’s trajectory?

Zuckerman, trying to see beneath the at once humble and complacent veneer, is disappointed.  Turns out that at the dinner the Swede doesn’t even go into the piece he wants written about his father.  They pass a dull evening together, and Zuckerman, in a sense, gets over the Swede.  There is nothing going on under the surface.  Unless . . .

Unless he was not a character with no character to reveal but a character with none that he wished to reveal – just a sensible man who understands that if you regard highly your privacy and the well-being of your loved ones, the last person to take into your confidence is a working novelist.  Give the novelist, instead of your life story, the brazen refusal of the gorgeous smile, blast him with the stun gun of your prince-of-blandness smile, then polish off the zabaglione and get the hell back to Old Rimrock, New Jersey, where your life is your business and not his.

He knows nothing more about the Swede, however, until the high school reunion comes around.  There he runs into the Swede’s younger brother, Jerry.  Only a bit of information is passed from Jerry to Zuckerman, but it’s enough.  A tidbit about the Swede’s daugher shows Zuckerman how wrong he was to pass off the Swede as just another superficial human being, too ideal to be interesting.  As happens at large reunions, Jerry and Zuckerman are separated before Zuckerman can satisfy his curiosity any further.

Though Zuckerman has little to go on, he delves into writing a book about the Swede’s life, focusing on the period of the 1960s and Vietnam and the early 1970s with Watergate, when his daughter has most destabalized not only his life but the life of his wife, the neighbors, the community, and the United States.  It is a fantastic, virtuosic plummet into the heart of America.

I can’t remember a book that caused a more visceral reaction to me.  Roth does not pull punches and he is not shy about making the reader feel complicit.  Because of this, I can’t say I’d recommend American Pastoral to everyone despite the fact that I consider it one of the greatest novels of the last century.  It deserves to be looked at with an open mind and with an understanding that Roth is not putting anything in here for gratuitous effect, and the effect is often devestating.  I swear, when the Swede encounters Rita Cohen to pass information to Merry I felt like I was there.  My mouth went dry.  Like the Swede, I too wanted to run out of the room I was in.  I felt like the Swede, and I admired Roth even more for his ability to do that.  Indeed, Roth, more than any other writer I know of, has the ability to pull me into the emotions the characters are feeling.  I feel transported, like the Swede:

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.

Another striking aspect of the novel is its treatment of Newark, a city I’m drawn to since I spent a summer working as a judicial intern in the Federal Court, which sits right in the area described in the novel, and I still frequent Newark’s streets.  Roth, like Zuckerman and the Swede, grew up in Newark in a time when it had a better reputation.  Here we get a gritty, up close shot of the city following the ugly and destructive riots of 1967; forty years later, these riots still affect the city and its abismal reputation.  Over the past few years, Newark has been attempting to revitalize itself.  It has a classy performing arts center and a brand new state-of-the-art stadium.  The homicide rate is dropping, finally.  But this scene is still familiar:

Along this forsaken street, as ominous now as any street in any ruined city in America, was a reptilian length of unguarded wall bareen even of graffiti.  But for the wilted weeds that managed to jut forth in wiry clumps where the mortar was cracked and washed away, the viaduct wall was barren of everything except the affirmation of a weary industrial city’s prolonged and triumphant struggle to monumentalize its ugliness.

The book doesn’t dwell in the urban areas, though.  The Swede has moved from Newark to the rural community of Old Rimrock.  It’s a stark contrast: Newark is primarily inhabited by Democrats and immigrants, Jewish or Catholic; Old Rimrock is primarily Republican and inhabited by wealthy WASPs.  The Swede’s generation was one of the first to change these stereotypes.  With his Irish Catholic wife, the Swede moves thirty miles west of Newark, and allows Roth to explore yet another side of America.

I’ll admit that my proximity to the landscape has made me like this book more than I perhaps would have otherwise, as I suspect is the case with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.  Still, American Pastoral is more layered than the clichéd onion.  In many ways, that layering is the major motif in the novel: there are glove factories, face-lifts, paintings that look like they are trying to “rub out” the paint rather than apply it.  We see it in the narrative structure which has a fictional author writing a fictional account about a real person.  We see it in the way Roth plays with the layers of time.  We see it in the layers of meaning in each and every scene.  This is an intimate look at a family that spreads out into an astounding discussion of America and her history.

After you read the book:

The last sentence in my review states that this is a great discussion of America and her history.  I’m very curious about how people not from America responded to this book.  Was it accessible despite the multitude of historical references?  My suspicion is that it is, that the book goes beyond America and touches on topics that are familiar to everyone.  I’m not just talking about the interfamily relationships here; I’m talking about the backwards look at a century that promised a lot and looked quite pretty from the surface.  But underneath . . .

I have heard from several people that they get bored with the last section.  I can understand how that could happen.  Instead of following Merry and Rita further into the berserk, Roth moves on to a small neighborly cookout on a holiday weekend.  I found it fantastic, the perfect ending.  After stripping the Swede’s emotions down to the raw core, Roth then proceeds to show everyone covering their pain up.  Dawn is moving on by getting a facelife, a new house, and a new man.  This is as much to cover the past as it is to build a better life.  It’s a pleasant looking scene with friendly conversation going on between people who despise each other fundamentally.  Brought to remembrance that great last scene in Woody Allen’s film against Ronald Reagan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, though American Pastoral was much less comical.

45 thoughts on “Philip Roth: American Pastoral

  1. Michael says:

    I am planning at some point to write something extensive about this novel, as I think it’s the best work of fiction I’ve read in the last five years. I read it last October as a part of a Jewish Literature series that we were holding at the library during the fall, and a full year later I still find myself going back to it to reread chosen passages, and thinking about these characters and their shattered illusions. The framing device of using Nathan to tell the Swede’s story has become more poignant now that I’m working through those early Zuckerman novels. And of course reveling in the writing, which as you point out, is just in another league. I’ll let you know when I write this manifesto, but for now it’s enough to say that I couldn’t agree more with your assessment.

  2. John Self says:

    Very interesting, Trevor. I read American Pastoral a few years ago, before I’d read any other Zuckerman books and after I’d read a couple of Roths which hadn’t exactly wowed me (though, having acquired the taste for him, they probably would now). This was the book which made me realise how great he could be. I expect if (or when) I reread it, it’ll move up to one of the highest positions in my Hall of Roth.

    Worth mentioning the last lines, which I think in their way are as fine and beautifully put as any last lines I’ve read (and which don’t, I believe, constitute a spoiler):

    And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?

    I’m thinking of giving The Counterlife, or perhaps Patrimony, a go next.

  3. KevinfromCanada says:

    An intriguing review, as usual, Trevor. I read American Pastoral in a single go with the other parts of the trilogy, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. And I find I remember the other two better than this book — although your review convinces me that I need to return to American Pastoral soon. I may have made a mistake in reading the whole trilogy at once — your review indicates to me that this book is quite a bit more subtle than the other two. Just as you wonder how much your own experience with Newark influenced your reaction to this book (quite a bit, I think — and I don’t mean that as a criticism), the politics of the other two books probably made them more accessible for me.

    Along that line, Booker-longlisted Linda Grant wrote a fascinating — and very critical — review of I Married a Communist in The Guardian, Oct. 3, 1998, which expands into some more general thoughts about Roth. While it is somewhat of a polemic, it is worth tracing down for a read because I do think she makes some quite legitimate points about Roth, even if they are over-stated. I also found the review relevant to some of the themes that are found in The Clothes on Their Backs.

  4. John Self says:

    Here is the Linda Grant piece which Kevin refers to. I shall skip it for now, as I have I Married a Communist on my Roth shelves to come to in due course. However I couldn’t help catching this sentence in passing:

    I don’t know that anyone understands more about men than Philip Roth, or less about women.

    Ouch!

  5. Michael, I look forward to your “manifesto.” I need to get down to the library soon to find out what’s going on. And if you’re interested, when Indignation comes out on September 16, the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca will be broadcasting some kind of Philip Roth appearence. I guess that’s the next best thing to an actual appearence.

    Kevin and John, before I go on to the next two books in this “trilogy” I’m going to take a step back and read The Counterlife. I kind of like seeing Nathan Zuckerman at the different points of his life, and don’t quite want to move on until I get him in the early 1990s.

    I haven’t read the Linda Grant piece yet, Kevin, but I’m anxious to. I’m not sure I want her to spoil my experience with the next few books, though. Still, I’m definitely interested in that perspective, which, after seeing the quote John pulled, I am not qualified to rebut.

  6. KevinfromCanada says:

    I think you are right about going back in the Zuckerman series rather than going forward. I also think this late trilogy requires some pausing between books and that I made a mistake in not taking that time.

    I wouldn’t worry about the Grant piece spoiling the books — it is in fact more about Roth as a writer than about the particular book. She raises some very interesting contextual points about Roth(and certainly says he should be read) that you can either accept or reject (John’s selected quote is a good example — I don’t think it spoils the books). I don’t necessarily agree with Grant’s conclusions — I do think her observations about Roth are definitely worth considering.

  7. I took your advice and read the review, Kevin. Very interesting. And you’re right – I don’t think it spoils Roth for me.

    To pull another quote:

    Opening the first page of any Philip Roth is like hearing the ignition on a boiler roar to life. Passion is what we’re going to get, and plenty of it.

    On a side not, today I took a drive to the Weequahic section of Newark where the Swede grew up. It’s very interesting to see the old-style homes that look quite rundown. I talked to a few of the people who lived there and they mentioned that many in the community are addicts. As I drove away there were full streets of boarded up, gutted out buildings. Still not there.

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    I went back to this review today after the Booker shortlist was announced (I know that’s a stretch, keep reading and I’ll explain). I think Trevor’s review contains something that is all too rare in reviews and needs to appear more often — an acknowledgement that personal experience with the geography or context of the book has significantly affected the final judgment.

    I’ve never been to Newark so Roth’s references are interesting but have no context. On the other hand, when I look at the “loose” trilogy that this book introduces, I read The Human Stain while visiting a sociology professor friend in Amherst — not the Berkshires, but very close, and surrounded by academics in what might be the world’s best centre of liberal arts colleges.

    I think The Human Stain a much better book than American Pastoral, but how much did the circumstances of when and where I read it affect me? A lot, I suspect. And when I reread American Pastoral, I will keep Trevor’s thoughts — and the fact he went back to Newark on the weekend (I do love that touch, although I share his disappointment) in mind. I know reviewers don’t like to insert themselves in the review, but sometimes they have to. This review is a perfect example of how to do that.

    Obviously a good book should transcrend the personal life of the people who read it. Equally obviously, however, reviewers have to admit that they know what they know and they can’t deny their personal experiences which influence their judgement. This review does a very good job of showing how to do that.

    As for the Man Booker (I promised that above is this very long post), I hated The Northern Clemency but a dovegreyreader post has caused me to at least be careful about expressing my opinion: she said (the quote is an impression not for certain) “maybe you had to be there”. I wasn’t there and I certainly acknowledge that maybe if I was this is a better book. That doesn’t make it a great book by any means — just means I should adjust my opinion, as I would of American Pastoral now that I know what someone who knows the territory thinks.

    I really like The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant. I also first visited London in 1975 as a 27-year-old Canada journalist, following the Premier of Alberta, on a European tour. I returned the next year as an excited tourist (and London to this day remains my favorite city to visit). I spent the summer of 1979 based in London as a Commonwealth Press Union fellow. Linda Grant’s book speaks to my experience of discovering a wonderful city in this, for me, wonderful city — does that make it a less or better book?

    And finally, Trevor, could I talk you into reading an Annie Dillard book for the blog sometime in the future ? As a pure writer, I would include her in my “greatest living Americans” list and I think she tends to get overlooked (more in the Stegner-Williams rather than Roth-Bellow-Updike(?) tradition). I lived in Pittsburgh from 2000 to 2003 so I would most like to see your thoughts on An American Childhood (and I generally hate memoirs), but anything that strikes your interest would be welcome.

    Sorry for another very long post, but when a reviewer sparks interesting thoughts that go beyond the review he/she has to expect them.

    Cheers,

    KevinfromCanada

  9. John Self says:

    I know Stegner, Kevin, but who is the Williams you compare Dillard with?

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    John Edward Williams may be the most overlooked novelist in American history. Born in Texas in 1922, he spent most of his life at the University of Denver (not a category A school in any category, football, writing, you name it) teaching creative writing. A poet (sorry I don’t read poetry, so no opinion), his entire work consists of four novels:

    Nothing But Night, published I think in 1948 and he disavowed it so I’ve never read it.
    Butcher’s Crossing, pub 1960 now available from NYRB Classics, a great Stegner-like book about a buffalo hunt in the American West, just before the market for buffalo skins collapsed. If you do like Stegner, you like this book. If I remember you like The Outlander, so I think you would quite like this one.

    Stoner, pub 1965 (also in the NYRB Classics series) — An academic novel, quite comparable in some ways to some of the great Oxford and Cambridge novels. Only this one concerns the son of a dirt-poor Missouri farmer who gets to go the state university (you can see where the Oxon comparison fades).

    Augustus, pub 1973 (still in commerical publication in North America, not sure about the UK) — Picks up the Roman story where the TV series leaves off, even thought it was written 35 years before they thought of the TV series. An epistolatory, diary novel — totally different from the other two. Having said that, the friends that we lend our Rome DVDs to always want to read the novel. I do like this book — I think the other two are better.

    Williams is an author whom it is impossible to classify and he didn’t really write enough to be in any pantheon. I do think you would find him interesting.

    He obviously didn’t write a lot or follow a genre. All three are wonderful books.

  11. KevinfromCanada says:

    John: Is there any chance you would take on an Annie Dillard book, or am I reaching? I’d love to see how someone from outside North America looks at her work.

  12. Kevin, your lengthy comments are always welcome! I find the comments one of (if not the) most enjoyable part of blogging about books.

    I have actually read An American Childhood. It’s been years, and I recently saw it in a bookstore and thought I needed to revisit it. Your request shall be granted! And fairly soon, I think.

    And I agree about how location influences a book. I read the overly long The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer because I knew the locations in that book too. In fact, one day I was reading it in a car service station and found that I was at the exact address he was describing – creepy! I wouldn’t recommend that book to anyone because of its length, but I enjoyed it as a history of a community I knew.

  13. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’m pulling An American Childhood off the shelf tomorrow — I’ve been looking for a non-contemporary book to read before the Giller longlist comes out and this is an excellent choice. If you change your mind and choose another Dillard, please let me know — I’d like to be up to date whenever you post a review. Cheers, Kevin

  14. Rob says:

    I tend to go through Roth phases; there have been times when I’ve read nothing else for weeks at a time, but I’ve had no interest in him lately (I even tried rereading The Human Stain a couple of summers ago, and didn’t finish it, although I loved it the first time I read it.) I’m not sure my experience is uncommon, so I’ll have to go back to him at some point and try to work out why that is.

    he last book of his that I read was The Plot Against America, and that one didn’t quite work for me. Again, at this stage I’d have to go back to it to work out why.

  15. Kevin, I did pull out An American Childhood last night, though I have two other book reviews coming up before it, so late next week I should get that one posted.

    Rob, that’s interesting. I definitely think that his raw passion and the fantastic rants might make time away from Roth beneficial. But you’re the first person I’ve had say that The Plot Against America didn’t work. I haven’t read it yet. My next Roth will be either The Counterlife or Indignation, which gets published next Tuesday here in the U.S. After those two I plan to take a break for a while (we’ll see how long that lasts). I’m interested to know if Roth ever becomes pallatable for you again.

  16. Rob says:

    I’ll certainly be trying him again, sooner or later, so I’ll let you know!

  17. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’d like to join Rob on the list of people who thought The Plot Against America didn’t work. Actually, I’m wondering whether a high opinion of Roth may be an American phenomenon that we don’t get in the rest of the world. I’ll keep wondering about that until your next Roth effort, Trevor, and promise to have an opinion by then.

  18. Demob Happy says:

    Not massive on Roth either. I found ‘American Pastoral’ dense – rather overwrought. I was a little indifferent to The Plot Against America, although I wouldn’t go as far as to say it ‘didn’t work’. The only other one I can remember reading is ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’. A grubby, smutty sex comedy if I remember rightly, and very funny, but it doesn’t seem to warrant Roth the status he enjoys. I’d definitely give him another go, which is your favourite Trevor?

  19. Kevin, I’ve wondered how well Roth travels to other nations. Seems every year when the Nobel Prize for literature is announced, there’s some discussion about whether it’s time for Roth. I have to say, I’ve rarely had as much pure joy in reading as when I was reading the first two Zuckerman books. I don’t think all of that was my proximity to New Jersey and New York, but I’m sure some of it was. I definitely appreciate comments from those of you who bring a different perspective to the books.

    Demob Happy, I’m afraid to say that my experience with Roth is limited to the “Zuckerman Bound” books and American Pastoral and Everyman, so while I can pick my favorite, it might change when I’ve made it through the rest of his books. As for now I’ll give you my three favorites: The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Bound, and American Pastoral. I think the most substantial of those is American Pastoral, and I had a different reaction to it than you did. I haven’t read The Plot Against America yet, but many of my friends (once again, those from New Jersey and New York) love it. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy it quite a bit too, especially since I find Lindbergh’s passifism fascinating already. We’ll see! Next on my shelf is The Counterlife.

    Interestingly, a couple of years ago the New York Times asked “a couple hundred prominent writers, critics, editors, and other literary sages” (not all of whom are American) what “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years” was. Beloved won, which is kind of expected though I didn’t warm up to it. American Pastoral was a runner-up. The crazy thing was that of the seventeen honorable mentions, five were by Philip Roth: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theatre, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. (Here is the article.) So it does appear that here in America Roth has a very devoted following. How will his work hold up in the larger world as the years go by?

  20. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’m intrigued enough by this issue that I promise a serious effort. I think I’ll start with a reread of American Pastoral, since your review provides some fresh context. Considering Sabbath’s Theatre and The Counterlife (neither of which I’ve read) as the rest of this stage of the project. And given my previous experience, I’ll be taking some time and leaving some space between various books.

  21. KevinfromCanada says:

    I went to that Times article after my posting my last comment and can’t resist adding another one.

    I’ve read all but seven novels on the list (including all in the first two categories) and three of the seven I haven’t read are Roth — so maybe I have some hidden bias against him.

    Then again, I’ve read all three of the DeLillo and would find them all marginal (Underworld is the only one I can actually remember and most of that is because of the baseball). And I think McCarthy’s trilogy faded badly after the opening book. As did Updike’s foursome (the first two of which were written outside the 25 year time frame of the query). Maybe my problem is with American fiction of the last 25 years.

    It is quite incredible that only two of the books that made the list were authored by women.

    I’ll add this to my list of things to wonder about.

  22. KevinfromCanada says:

    On the Updike front, I would actually recommend the Beck books rather than the Rabbit books. He did write them as short stories but they are linked, so they read as a novel, or rather three novels. Both series cover the same period — for my money, the Beck books get stronger, the Angstrom weaker. Everyman’s Library has a wonderful and affordable version which pulls them all together, with a quite good introductory essay.

    I too have problems finding U.S. women writers to put on the list. I read Kingsolver, but find her a little shallow. And Dillard’s best books are non-fiction as you note (although The Maytrees is quite a good novel). After Morrison (who is a bit tough to read) it is hard to come up with a name. And then when I look at British names — Byatt, Drabble, Penelope Fitzgerald, Grant, Enright just off the top of my head — it’s hard not to think there’s been a better go from that gender over there. And when I look at Canada — Atwood, Urquhart, Munro, Hay (again just to start) — I’d say we’ve had a pretty good go here. Might be a subject you could address in a later review.

  23. I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open now. I’m sure I’m just being blind right now and need to look harder and read more books by American women. The only two coming to mind now are Lahiri (and she’s not written what could be considered the best single work of American fiction, though Interpeter of Maladies was pretty good) and Proulx. I’m not a fan of Anne Tyler, and I haven’t read Carol Shields. Seems like my favorites have all passed on and were writing in the first half of the last century.

    I’ll definitely be returning to this as I think more. Please keep me informed of what you (all of you) come up with.

  24. Kevin, I agree about DeLillo and McCarthy. I loved All the Pretty Horses but found it stood on its own very well. In fact, I’ve heard the other parts of the trilogy almost lessened the power of the first book. Consequently, I’ve never read them.

    I actually have yet to venture into Updike. For years I’ve went to the shelf and pulled out the first Rabbit book only to put it back after finding something else. I always figure that I’ll get to Rabbit someday. That day is approaching, I now feel.

    And I also was intrigued by the practical absence of women on the list. Most of my favorite women authors are British, though, so I had a hard time coming up with other American women who’d put forth a great piece of American fiction – Annie Dillard’s best are nonfiction-ish. I like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, but don’t think it’s the single-best work of the last 25 years. Help me come up with other women who deserve to be on the list.

  25. Stewart says:

    American women. The only two coming to mind now are Lahiri (and she’s not written what could be considered the best single work of American fiction, though Interpeter of Maladies was pretty good) and Proulx. I’m not a fan of Anne Tyler, and I haven’t read Carol Shields

    So, who does that leave? Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Cynthia Ozick, Annie Dillard, and Toni Morrison? Can’t say I’ve read them though, except Oates’ Black Water.

  26. KevinfromCanada says:

    Stewart’s list illustrates my dilemma. Oates writes so many books (of uneven quality) that reading her is almost a fulltime project in itself (okay, I push the case somewhat). I know Didion and Dillard (both of whom are quite good) more for their non-fiction work. Ozick does count and is someone I have overlooked. Toni Morrison is an acquired taste that I don’t have — which says more about me than her. Janette Turner Hospital also writes some very good books although Australia and Canada get to claim her as well as the U.S., not that that matters.

  27. There’s also Amy Tan, who legitimately could have garnered a vote in this race for The Joy Luck Club, which I read and didn’t really appreciate, or The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which I didn’t read and don’t intend to and which premiered in opera form just Monday night in San Francisco.

  28. Stewart says:

    Geraldine Brooks, perhaps? Or Marilynne Robinson. Based purely on them both taking the Pulitzer in recent years.

  29. Marilynne Robinson happens to be the other honorable mention on the NY Times list, for her 1980 book Housekeeping. I haven’t read it or Gilead (or her new one for that matter), but she’s definitely in the running.

    I haven’t read Geraldine Brooks, either, but I haven’t gotten the sense that people would classify her as a master yet.

  30. KevinfromCanada says:

    I can’t help but observe that all of the names that have been mentioned (and I have no others to add) are a cut or two below Roth and even Updike. I can’t tell you the number of times I have picked Gilead off the shelf and put it back.

    Then again, most critics agree that Edith Wharton is a cut or two behind Henry James. Which brings me to the main point of this post.

    Trevor, you have been exploring, successfully, books about New York. I haven’t dug deep into the blog, but my impression is that you were born and raised somewhere else, live outside the City (on a long commute), work in the City, know the region. As you are well aware, those of us who read North American fiction read a lot about New York City. We welcome impressions from someone who “knows” but is not a native. You seem to qualify.

    So I would like to suggest a New York City project. You have reviewed Netherland and like it (lonely so far, but as I’ve indicated elsewhere that will probably change) and moved backward with Roth. Would you consider continuing the trip? I’d love to see your thoughts on a Salinger (probably one of the short story volumes, but Catcher in the Rye would be fine), a Fitzgerald (again I would prefer something other that Gatsby) and finally, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (that’s the one title I most want in the project).

    Sorry to deflect the thoughts on this stream but as a reader who reads a lot of novels about New York, I would very much like Trevor to engage in this project.

  31. Project accepted, Kevin! I’ve read most of the titles you’ve suggested, but it’s been years – before I came to the New York area. I’m sure my perspective on them is different now, both becaue of where I live and also because I’m just at a different part of life. I’ll keep this project in mind as I venture into other areas.

    Always looking for things like this!

  32. Stewart says:

    Just for some flavour, as I’ve not read them, but a couple of other New Yorkers that I’ve seen out and about are Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale and Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed.

  33. KevinfromCanada says:

    Winter’s Tale would be most interesting, although from my perspective it is more about an imagined than a real New York — which is not to eliminate it. Don’t know The Unpossessed. The problem with New York novels is once you start listing them the list becomes endless — seems like every North American writer has to write a New York novel (I can list more than five Canadians who have included New York in their novels). So, Trevor, the challenge is to pick a manageable, yet comprehensive, list.

    Good luck.

  34. John Self says:

    Have just returned here after not visiting this discussion in a couple of weeks and I see that Ozick, whom I mentioned just now on my blog, has been raised here already.

    Kevin, thanks for clarifying who Williams is. In fact I have a copy of Stoner in the NYRB edition so I should have worked that one out for myself.

    As for Dillard, I’m ashamed to say she was only a vague echo in my mind until I saw Trevor’s recent post on her. I will look out.

  35. KevinfromCanada says:

    John: I hope Williams finds his way on to your agenda in the next few months. He is not perfect, but he is a much overlooked author.

  36. To respond to your appeal — I’m not American and I loved American Pastoral. Surely a book with such a rich sense of place is more interesting to someone who doesn’t know the place?

    “I can’t remember a book that caused a more visceral reaction to me.” — This is exactly the book’s great strength. It’s so vivid. Certainly my favourite Roth so far — and, moreover, one of my favourite 20th Century novels.

    In case you’re interested, I’ve just written a post about Sabbath’s Theater.

    Regarding The Plot Against America — I absolutely loved it, right up until the ending, which is one of the silliest and worst chapters I’ve ever read by Roth.

  37. Jonathan, that you enjoyed it so much is excellent news! I’m not sure I agree with you that the book is more interesting to someone who doesn’t know the place, though. It lingers in my mind everytime I wander around where I live. That said, I’m not sure my experience is necessarily better than any one else’s.

    Thanks for the post on Sabbath’s Theater too. I won’t get to that one or The Plot Against America for a while, though, since I’m about to step back from American Pastoral and go through Counterlife and then finish the rest of the Zuckerman novels in order. I look forward to every minute of it!

  38. KevinfromCanada says:

    I see the chair of the Nobel Prize for Literature committee says U.S. writers are “too isolated, too insular” to win the prize. (I found the interview on the NY Times site — you might want to post a link to the whole ludicrous thing.) So I guess that means no Nobel for Roth, let alone Updike, Oates or a host of others, Toni Morrison having already won.

    I found the comment interesting because, despite my interest in literary prizes, I rarely pay attention to the Nobel winner beyond noting who it is. Certainly in the last decade, they haven’t introduced me to anyone that I found intriguing — and I can’t say the ones I knew about beforehand such as Coetzee are way up on my list of favorites. I’d have to go all the way back to 1988 (Mahfouz) to find a winner that I greatly admire, even if there are some whom I certainly acknowledge are good, not necessarily great, writers.

  39. I just thought of an American female author that hasn’t been mentioned here: Francine Prose. I have only read her book about writing and reading, but I have heard good things about her fiction.

    Anyone know whether she’s potentially up on the first tier of American writers?

  40. John Self says:

    Nope! I’d never heard of her until I saw her introduction to the NYRB edition of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica.

  41. Christopher Enzi says:

    re: a project on New York Novels AND notable female writers-
    I’m surprised that no one has yet mentioned DAWN POWELL, particularly THE LOCUSTS HAVE NO KING but pick any of her New York Novels and settle in for a fun, juicy read full of well drawn characters that toss witticisms that would do Dorothy Parker proud without the latter’s nasty misanthropic streak. Ms Powell’s characters tend to be artists, singers, dancers and lovers, beautiful moths drawn to the dazzling flame they perceive NYC to be, bent on spreading their wings and making a spectacle of themselves in one way or another. These exotic creatures, exiles form banal farming communities, need their imagined New York to be a grand bauble for them to conquer as part of their plan for self aggrandisement. Not that they’re evil, just definitely playing the leading role in their own movies. New York Natives, in Powell’s books, are just like any other small town people, rooted in their familiar communities.
    DAWN POWELL wrote at least 14 novels about NYC along with stories and plays and some notable novels set in the American midwest. She was friends with Gore Vidal who has written introductions to her recently republished novels. When she died in 1963, none of her work was in print.
    At one point, she speaks of a woman who “everyone thought had her feet planted firmly n the ground but usually her feet were tangled up in someone or other’s sheets.”
    This is a funny, moving and highly readable body of work originally published between 1938 and 1962. Each novel is a lovely window into the time when it was written. Curiously, they are terribly sophisticated and utterly provincial at the same time because they were written for a local audience of New Yorkers who would recognize the characters in the novels as their neighbors.

  42. Thanks for bringing Dawn Powell to my attention, Christopher. I have actually never heard of Powell, so I look forward to finding out more about her.

    It should be noted, however, that we’re trying to find the American female novelist who is still writing. I find that the best were writing during the earlier part of the twentieth century, and there seemed to have been many. All the same, I am anxious to explore Powell. Thanks!

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