“Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen round in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time.”
This quote was taken from author Nick Hornby’s column “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” in the ever-so-popular literary and arts culture magazine The Believer. In his comedic analogy, Hornby goes on to explain that it’s a sheer numbers game; one is more likely, on any given day, to encounter a truly great book than one would a great movie, television show, or album, and the level of greatness intrinsic in that book would always exceed the level of greatness intrinsic in the other medium. He does offer exceptions in his “Cultural Fantasy Boxing League” (He believes Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde would knock out Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop and Citizen Kane could take down Nabokov’s Pale Fire), but ultimately, the novel just has so much more potential for greatness in and of itself than do other mediums.
I usually agree with the sentiment—that’s why I chose to write for a book blog in the first place—however, there are certainly moments once every so often that I consider my most potent cultural experience to have come from somewhere other than a novel (True Detectives and Dawes’s Nothing Is Wrong album as two of the more recent examples). The feeling usually subsides quickly as, like Hornby suggests, I continue to read great books through a massive selection, but then I go ahead and read something like Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and HOLY ISH! With all due respect to movies and television shows (and possibly albums), there is no possible way that they could achieve, spiritually or emotionally, what Roth’s novel achieves.
American Pastoral is not without its accolades. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, the year it was published, and was included on Time Magazine’s famous 2005 “All-time 100 Novels” list, which allegedly recognized all English-language novels published since 1923. I’m not here to tell you what you can just as easily find on a google search; I don’t even know if American Pastoral is a perfect novel, if there is such a thing. I will, however, say this: American Pastoral is one of those books from which you come out at the end a different person. Not necessarily in a tangible or outwardly-noticeable way, but you just feel different.
Roth’s story is one of Seymour Levov, otherwise referred to as “the Swede,” the classically infallible American hero. He is the tall, blonde and handsome, yet sincerely modest, high school sports star who turns down opportunities to play professionally in order to join the marines and fight for his country in “the last good war,” only then to return home unscathed to take over his father’s successful glove-manufacturing business, marry Miss New Jersey, and start a family in the rural town of Old Rimrock, New Jersey. Seymour sets out to achieve what he believes to be the American dream, and nobody doubts that he actually has done so (not even he), until his sixteen-year-old daughter blows up the Old Rimrock post office and runs away to join the Weather Underground. Like the bomb that would eventually render the young Merry Levov a murderer and enemy of the state, the novel and Seymour’s life both erupt in thick bouts of tension, psychosis, and suffering. “The Swede” learns throughout the novel that his life never was perfect, could never truly be or have been perfect, and so “we are all in the power of something demented.”
With ferocious prose, Roth writes not just of the unraveling of one man’s life, but of the unraveling of post-war America and its ideals. The “pastoral” façade crumbles as revolutions of the racial, religious and political expose the quietly oblivious. Growing up, Seymour doesn’t see how his perfection destroys others just as America doesn’t see the effect its success has on the disenfranchised. American Pastoral makes no excuses for itself; it is a novel seemingly written out of anger and condemnation with unbridled hope for progress. Although the novel takes place primarily in the 60s and 70s, it makes perfectly clear that the simultaneous revolutions of self and country are still happening today, and that they not only will continue to happen but must continue to happen in order for America to survive itself.