In Persuasion Nation: Saunders’ Most Even Collection?

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George Saunders’ biggest problem is one of the most absurd problems anyone, let alone a writer, could possibly have. His problem, in a weird way, is that he is too good. When Saunders is hitting on all cylinders, say in stories such as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Tenth of December, the pages fly and a reader becomes impossibly invested in the story. Saunders accomplishes so much, so efficiently, that he can encompass the full rise and fall of a great novel in less than ten pages. Such talent can spoil a reader and, in a bizarre way, work against Saunders simply due to the expectations that he generates with every page. This is remarkably unfair to Saunders, but the mere fact that he rises to meet such expectations is yet another reason to continue to have them.

What makes In Persuasion Nation interesting as a short story collection is twofold. First, while it is noted far and wide that Saunders is our chief American satirist, In Persuasion Nation takes his most direct shot at what America claims to stand for compared to what it really stands for. Of course, in typically Saunders’ fashion, this shot is taken through a Pynchonian romp of quirky and indescribable characters being put through absurd situations that, on face-level, seem to have little to do with reality. Yet, this distance between reality and satire was a delight to find, as it was what CivilWarLand in Bad Decline lacked as a collection, particularly the final story, which at times could be called ham-handed. And this leads directly to the second aspect of In Persuasion Nation‘s appeal: the obvious growth as a writer. Not only does Saunders reveal himself as leaps and bounds better than we already knew he was and could be, but he also becomes much bolder, willing to take a lot of risks that earlier stories could have used. In the best possible way, Saunders steers into a very Pynchonian vein while maintaining stories and prose that are uniquely his own.

But make no mistake, the meat of the collection is what drives it. Adam Johnson’s Emporium is a collection of great writing and ideas, but it leaves a reader feeling underwhelmed. This is not a mistake Saunders makes in this collection. He is primarily interested in American entertainment and advertising, and in this way the collection at times can ring a bit of DFW, but not venturing too far into that seemingly cornered market. It is this aspect that gives the stories even more leeway into the absurd while remaining highly poignant and often disturbing. While Saunders’ black humor remains ever-present in each story, there is also no denying how much more serious these stories feel than earlier ones. That he manages to house such seriousness behind stories that include a brief epic about a fight between a man that chooses Doritos over his grandson and a man who tied a brick to his penis is nothing short of remarkable. And in a way this is Saunders’ best quality: the fact that he is so difficult to take seriously, yet simultaneously impossible not to. A reader cannot possibly avoid a giggle at such a situation as described above, yet while reading it that same reader knows that more than anything, the story they are reading is a scathing indictment of American Consumer Capitalism and that the parallels are ignored only through willingness.

Yet, it must also be said that unlike the other two collections of stories I have read by Saunders, In Persuasion Nation has no story in that truly stands above the rest. Whereas Tenth of December and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline‘s title stories were clearly a notch above the rest of the stories that accompanied them (though Sticks will always hold a special place in my heart). Perhaps this is not a bad thing, however. Unlike his other collections, In Persuasion Nation has little rise and fall; instead setting a standard with the very first story and having no issues reaching it consistently with nearly every story after. While Jon was likely my favorite of the collection (sidenote: I cannot be the only one who noticed how similar this story was to Escape from Spiderhead in Tenth of DecemberJon being a far better story), it’s difficult to pick any of them as being clearly worse or clearly better. Which, for a book of stories, is an accomplishment in itself.

Recommended to: This is a good place to start with Saunders. I wish I had read this before Tenth of December.

Avoid as if it is a meatball sub and you are wearing white pants: This collection is loaded to the brim with Sci-Fi elements, but one should expect that going into Saunders anyway. Regardless, if Sci-Fi is not your most loved genre, you may find his love of using it distracting.

The Sellout: Structures and Band-Aids

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We are truly in the age of morally gray and ambiguous novels. Whether it be A Brief History of Seven Killings finding the humanity and everything worth loving within Jamaican drug-running assassins, Let the Great World Spin’s asking whether or not a priest can act out his faith towards those who reject its tenants at all turns, or Fortune Smiles containing a story that attempts to establish empathy with a man that while helping the police track down child pornographers, struggles deeply with the subject itself, novels and stories being published to acclaim today are hellbent on deconstructing every off-hand notion of what is true and right in order so that they may complicate it and find, even in the worst aspects of humanity, the existential struggle that exists in all people. And yet, in these writings we find something deathly serious in the way the way they are approached. Humor has an occasion, yes, but in the above it is not commonly found, often existing in places where it is so dark it is difficult to laugh at, or so safe it functions as a mental break from the seriousness of the matter at hand.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s Man-Booker Prize winning novel from 2015, takes a different approach. While it still ruthlessly examines and deconstructs everything we know, it uses humor in a ruthless way that both allows a person a way out of the crushing depravity of what they feel they are reading, but also shoves them further into it, with every attentive reader’s laugh bringing a forced reflection on the topic at hand. The topic being what makes the book so difficult to accept in the first place: slavery and segregation. In contemporary times as we become more keenly aware of social and racial injustices and the copious amount of work we still have left to do in the fight for equality, Beatty’s brilliance comes out as satire, but whereas some satirical works blur the line so much that they run the danger of endorsing the very thing they set out to satire, The Sellout finds itself riding a perfect line of questioning and humor, never straying into the dangerous area of humor that becomes impossible to differentiate between endorsement and criticism.

Centering around a narrator who only gives his last name (“Me”), The Sellout‘s plot concerns itself Me’s reintroduction of slavery and segregation into Dickens, the LA suburb he was raised in. Yet, this is not his intention from the outset. Me begins the novel as an urban farmer raised by a father who was well-versed in both psychology and African-American Socio-Economic conditions. After his father’s death at the hands of the police, the local man his father was known for saving from multiple suicide attempts, Hominy Jenkins, again tries to hang himself. After Me saves him, Hominy feels in debt to Me as well as fed up with his own place in the world as a former African-American Child Star from the days in which racism was a common avenue for American television. As such, Hominy exists in a world that that is permanently separate from reality. Since his most successful and happy moments of life came directly due to the existence of racism, without socially acceptable racism existing both in policy and actuality, he is unable to function.

Behind all of Beatty’s satire is the idea that while segregation and slavery were both racist, in America they up institutionalized racism, which responding to with laws, while necessary, doesn’t end racism, but nonetheless allows people to operate as if they do not exist and live within a structurally racist society. Thus, the avenue that Beatty explores finds its brilliance it its exploration of this fact. The Sellout doesn’t set out to complicate and leave gray the morality of slavery and segregation, in fact the the main character often repeats the horrendousness of it whilst reflecting upon the nature of his father. What The Sellout does instead is complicate our existing structure through pretenses that most find absurd. The most disturbing thing about The Sellout does is not its offering up of a comic view of slavery and segregation; it is Beatty’s relentless pointing to our own society, which functions now as if ending slavery and segregation were simply placing a band-aid over a serious wound and then refusing to admit there is a deeper problem.

Recommended to: This is a great novel to read if you like to be challenged from a variety of standpoints. It requires a reading that is beyond face-level, shallow interpretation.

Avoid as if it is a speed run of Super Mario the Lost Levels: This novel is extremely difficult to read, offending everyone in the world at least once a page. Yet this is not without purpose, which redeems it. Nonetheless, if neither satire nor dark humor is your thing, you will struggle to find any redeemable qualities of the book.

The House on Mango Street: Escape and What Shapes You

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Part of me has real empathy with this novel, but in an extremely different way than the author may have intended. In fact, I’m not sure how fair it is that I claim empathy with this novel, but nonetheless, part of me truly understands what it is about, even if I can’t say I lived nearly as troubled or traumatic a life as the protagonist of The House on Mango Street. Every person who leaves the place they grew up has memories and shaping experiences that they will take with them everywhere for the rest of their life. Whether those experiences are haunting and distressing or joyful and cathartic, they are completely inescapable. In this way, where you’re from is something you can’t leave behind, even if you want to. For me, it is the fact that where I come from is deeply misguided in its views on racism and every other social issue known to humanity. Even those who have stayed there and managed to have an accepting mindset and approach to life can still find themselves struggling with normalizing thoughts and beliefs that have no business being anywhere near the norm. Yet, I’ve truly had a privileged life if this is my main avenue of empathy with Ciscernos’ novel.

The House on Mango Street is a novel that is made up of a series of vignettes about Esperanza, a thirteen year-old girl living in Chicago who is at least partially an autobiographical stand-in for Ciscernos. As the novel opens, Esperanza and her family have dreams of finally having a home of their own that they can settle in. For her entire life she has been moving from place to place, the only steady aspect of her life being her family, a key theme of the novel. Hope finds its way into Esperanza’s dreams of what it is like to own a home and have a place to herself when she learns they are moving into their own home on Mango Street. When the home is not what she envisioned it to be, she begins to take a new stance toward reality and the hand she has been dealt in life. The House on Mango Street, more than anything else, is about Esperanza’s constant battles with her ideals juxtaposed to what happens to her to stop her from attaining them.

The book’s structure is what sets it apart, the vignettes allowing Ciscernos to cover a broad range of both topics and time without feeling uneven or jumpy. Much like Italo Calvino’s Invisible CitiesThe House on Mango Street is likely a novel that could be read one story a day over a few months without the book ever managing to lose any of its beauty or meaning. Mango Street reads like memories, both frightful and wonderful. Just as reality brings to your head the best and worst aspects of your life seemingly randomly, Mango Street does the same, albeit with a big more structure to provide the semblance of a narrative. These vignettes all function towards a drive in Esperanza that continually makes her ask one thing: where do I belong? For nearly all of the story, the one place she is sure she does not belong is Mango Street. From the alleys, to the school, to the dilapidated buildings, she feels herself being crushed by it. It is her friends and family that, for the most part, keep her happy.

It is friends and family, as well, that bring meaning and acceptance to her life on Mango Street. And this is what the book moves toward; namely that to truly escape Mango Street, to truly accept ourselves, we must accept where we came from. Which is not to say that we must be okay with everything bad about it. It is instead to say that it did manage to produce us and others we love. And it is those others that allow us to coexist with the place and return to it.

Recommended to: This is an easy novel to tell everyone to read. While I didn’t find it life changing, it is well-written and worthwhile.

Avoid as if it is forgetting someone’s birthday: N/A. This has no business on anyone’s avoid list.

Emporium: Great Prose, Forgettable Stories?

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It is difficult, in my mind, to overstate just how much I love Adam Johnson’s recent collection of stories, Fortune Smiles. It is easily the best collection of stories I’ve read in my lifetime, and arguably the most unforgettable reading experience I had in 2016. As such, it was difficult for me to not splurge and buy everything Johnson had ever published (I since have) simply because writing something as great as Fortune Smiles is no accident. Writers cannot possibly luck into creating such an experience. Despite this, however, I still was not quite ready to read his novels. It seems rare that a writer is both great at writing in short form and in long form, and there is something incandescent and untouchable about a great short story. The idea of having Fortune Smiles repeated in even a small manner was too much too ignore.

So here we are with Johnson’s first collection of stories, Emporium. Which undoubtedly flies below the steady greatness of Fortune Smiles, but nonetheless shows Johnson to have had so much promise that the stories themselves become secondary to the sheer wonder of the thought of this young writer one day putting it all together and writing something that is as great as the highs within Emporium throughout a single piece, rather than scattered among a few stories. Johnson has such a gift for readable, yet unique prose that one forgets that s/he is reading something that is held in high academic esteem. It is as if Hemingway was mixed with John Kennedy Toole and Kurt Vonnegut. Johnson finds a way to convey, at times, harsh realities inside wacky three dimensional characters packed within sci-fi-like eras of the world that, despite their seeming offhandedness, resonate deeply with a reader.

Readers of Fortune Smiles will no doubt enjoy the collection for the chance to see how far Johnson has come in his ability to tell a story, yet they will also notice how often Emporium seems to be the same thing that Johnson eventually perfected. All the stories are after the same thing, an existential undeniably human experience of the world and what it is like to exist within it. Yet Emporium seems to have a reoccurring habit of not necessarily knowing how to get itself out of what it has gotten into. With the exception of “The Canadanaut” each story seems to contain the rise of what is going to become a story, but never bothers to finish. They do not necessarily feel incomplete, it is instead that they feel like they never had a true plot to begin with. Johnson is talented at creating characters, and these are character driven and focused stories, but they end up missing any sense of closure. It is impossible to not become invested in these characters, but a reader will end up asking themselves what the point of it was.

The exception to this, as mentioned above, is the eighth story in the collection (and likely not by coincidence, the longest story in the collection), “The Canadanaut,” which is a story set in the 60s of a space race between Canada and Russia to try to put a man in space and get him home. A reoccurring theme in Emporium is loneliness, but “The Canadanaut” reaches new heights on the topic whereas the rest of the stories never seem to quite get where I think they are striving for (a possible exception to this being the first story, “Teen Sniper”). What is more lonely than being on a one-man shuttle into space, a likely suicide mission? The themes are heavy here, but not heavy-handed: the impossibility of true communication, the coldness of math and science bereft of humanity, and the longing for things out of our grasp and dreams long gone. While perhaps not worth the price of the book itself, “The Canadanaut” is a must-read.

Emporium is a collection of wondrous prose that can make a reader forget that stories are about a bit more than words on a page. Johnson, even from an early age, clearly possessed a devastating ability to capture human experience in an efficient and meaningful way without sacrificing any clarity. Emporium, more than anything, just warns of an incredible voice with a bright future ahead.

Recommended to: Adam Johnson completionists. This excludes “The Canadanaut,” which everyone needs to find a pdf of very quickly.

Avoid as if it is taking a sixteen seed to the Final Four: Please do not begin here with Johnson. Grab Fortune Smiles if you are interested in this fantastic writer.

Americanah: To Feel Always Out of Place

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Americanah is a novel with great deal of vitally important things to say about the role of race and gender in America juxtaposed with class and gender in Nigeria. What is Americanah? It is the way of being that Nigerians bring back to Nigeria after being in America for a prolonged period of time. In the case of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s character Ifemelu, it is a personal feeling of loneliness and the suspicion that one no longer belongs or fits in either place. Americanah, like most of the novel, is multifaceted, and it is to Adichie’s credit that the novel carries such a firm grasp of dimensions in not only people, but ideas. Yet, it is this very dimension of the novel that is most interesting, as Ifemelu’s feelings of being trapped within what society expects of her or at the very least what she can do within society without truly upsetting the rigid structure that upholds systemic racism are what makes the novel devastating in reflection, as it is a nagging thought as to whether or not Ifemelu accomplishes her goals.

Americanah, to be clear, is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze- though Ifemelu is the major focus of the story- two young lovers in Nigeria who are separated from one another when Ifemelu begins going to school in America and Obinze must stay behind. When silence begins to grow between them due to Ifemelu’s inability to talk to Obinze about taking a small job as an escort when she was at the end of her rope financially, they each begin two distinctly different lives, Ifemelu becoming obsessed with the idea of race in America and Obinze moving to England and simply attempting to stay afloat above poverty and keep his residency legal. What is shared between them, even when they do not speak, is a shared experience of all humans: the feeling of not belonging. Both highly intelligent characters, Ifem and Obinze see through people and struggle to stay happy in a world that they cannot truly identify to people as who they truly are: Obinze due to his need to take a fake name to work in England, and Ifem, after finding a job in which she did not have to have a fake name, living a life in which she is surrounded by people who do not tell the truth as she understands it. She begins to see race as this thing that haunts every interaction Americans have.

This haunting is strange to her as a Nigerian, as she never felt her skin color beyond beauty standards until she arrived in America. As her observations and interactions with people begin to mount, she begins a blog in which she describes race relations in America from a “non-American Black’s” perspective. The posts she writes are sprinkled throughout the novel, usually at the end of chapters, with the occasional one in the middle of a chapter if it directly relates to the situation Ifem was most recently dealing with. These posts are incredibly interesting, written without jargon and with clear meaning and challenging intent. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if the structure in which they are present could be used more effectively. Often they simply appear, as from thin air, at the end of a chapter. At times they directly relate to the situation at hand, but other moments, despite how interesting they are, a read may find themselves puzzled as to why the post is necessarily here or there.

And in the end, this is perhaps the main issue I kept having with Americanah, that I did not understand the structure of it. It did not read much like a novel as much as it did a collection of happenings to someone. Ifemelu was a great character to be around and learn from, but when the novel left her for Obinze, even for a just a chapter or two, it undeniably lost some of its steam. Obinze really maintained his interest only around Ifemelu, who was truly the electric character of the novel. While I appreciated the actual love story of Ifem and Obinze, I also think it was irrelevant. That if Obinze did not exist in the novel, I’m not sure the novel changes that much. If anything it becomes better. But, this is essentially the point of Americanah, what is Ifem to do when the only place she has ever belonged whatsoever was in the company of Obinze? Americanah, once one has adopted it, is nearly a perpetual state of being an outsider, whether it be around American people of color or Nigerian.

Americanah, while having its faults in my eyes, is most importantly a challenging novel. Not in the way that the novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses are, but in what it is about. In a way few writings do, it cuts to the heart of the matter on American racism and class structure in a way that many will not only find upsetting, but will likely cause real, tangible anger. In that sense, it does exactly what art is supposed to be doing: challenging and changing us, provoking some sort of response to a call we may or may not be ready to hear.

Recommended to: Those with real interest in racism in America. Do not step into Americanah expecting a story that will sweep you away, if anything the novel has no plot whatsoever while maintaining the aesthetic of having one. Instead, step into it expecting vignettes and meditations that can change the way you think.

Avoid as if it is a Facebook argument about the nature of the Bible: If I told anyone to avoid this I would be angry with myself. This is truly an important read that goes beyond any grumblings I have about structure of novels. What could be more irrelevant?

A Clockwork Orange: Timshel! Thou Mayest!

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Note: This review will not attempt to avoid spoilers (It’s been 50 years!)

A Clockwork Orange is perhaps best known for being perhaps the most disturbing of Stanley Kubrick’s films. Yet one does not really even need to watch the film to see why this is a distinct possibility, even likelihood. Oft analyzed scenes such as the infamous “Singing in the Rape” serve as an attempt to get the viewer into the thoughts of Alex, the main character of the novel and film. While Burgess’ novel can let his actions stand alone as what they are (namely: unconscionable, vile acts) and then surround them with Alex’s own thoughts before and after, Kubrick does not have the luxury of such a ploy without falling into tropes, thus, to go along with Alex’s horrid actions, Kubrick has him not narrate them, but add to them. Somehow make them worse. Namely, by adding pure joy. Kubrick has to show us that Alex not only has no qualms with his crimes, but also that he enjoys them. This is why the film version of A Clockwork Orange is oft-accused of glorifying violence.

Yet the novel finds itself in a different place, as readers are presented with a stream-of-consciousness/post-log of Alex’s day-to-day life in a futuristic dystopian New York. He and his droogs roam the city at night and, for what it is worth, terrorize its inhabitants, beating them to a pulp or worse. It is during one of these night romps that he is caught by the police after accidentally murdering a woman who had sent her cats to attack him (it should not be understated how humorous the novel is at times; including a moment in which, when Alex returns from prison, his father informs him that the state had to sell all of his things so that it could afford to take care of the old woman’s cats). They hall him away and he is sentenced to 12 years in prison, but after two he is offered a deal to walk-free. Participate in the trials of the Ludavico experiment and he will walk after “only a fortnight.” The Ludovica experiment subjects him to intense “ultra-violence” (a term coined by Burgess) in the form of film and Alex is forced to develop such an aversion to violence that he becomes sick at his stomach and feels intense pain when he even begins to think about violence. Likewise, because the films are scored with classical music, he can no longer partake of his favorite composers either, which seems to scar him the most. Upon being released no one, not even his family believes that he is actually a good, changed person. When he finally finds someone who does, the man desires to kill Alex after realizing that Alex broke into his home years ago and raped his wife. Alex’s goodness becomes utterly irrelevant, and he becomes useful only as a pawn in governmental infighting. He attempts suicide unsuccessfully, and in the process being healed they reverse the process of Ludovica, allowing Alex to be violent once more.

And here’s where the fun begins. In the original American release A Clockwork Orange only has 20 chapters, despite Burgess writing 21. At the end of chapter 20, Alex sits in a hospital bed and simply gives in to his violent nature, regaining his humanity, but in the most upsetting of possible ways. Yet, in the rerelease of the novel, with chapter 21 included, the reader joins Alex with his new droogs readying for a night of mischief and terror. Suddenly Alex decides he is not in the mood and tells them to carry on without him. He leaves and runs into Pete, one of his old droogs, who is married and has a family now. Alex is deeply moved that even a person as lowly and desolate as Pete could find such happiness and vows to begin his life anew as a good person.

This last chapter is routinely thought of as being out of character an unconvincing, and on a first read I felt similarly. But as I continued to ponder it, I cannot help but take into account the overall theme of the novel, namely as the importance of choice. That it does not matter if you are feeding the homeless or standing up for the rights of those less fortunate if you do not have a choice in the matter. Without choice the action becomes empty, void of all quality. Burgess makes a case for a sort of endless dualism in which good cannot exist with bad, and vice-versa. That as long as Alex is completely unable to be evil, he is unable to do good as well. This is set up by the line from the prison chaplain to Alex before he enters the Ludovica experiment, “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” I cannot say I want to simply dismiss the final chapter, as it is reminiscent of perhaps my favorite conversation in literature between Samuel Hamilton, Lee, and Adam Trask in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. A conversation in which Lee argues that the importance of what God tells Cain after he curses him, timshel; thou mayest triumph over sin. It’s not a command, it’s not a promise, it’s an choice inherent to all of us. And in a way, I really like chapter 21, as Burgess remains consistent, telling us it’s a choice, just as he has all along. But I will not deny that ending on chapter 20 was far more satisfying.

Recommended to: It’s a novel about big questions in ethics. More philosophical than anything else, hinging on a consistent ideal rather than the story itself, thus there is a specific niche of people who will adore this novel.

Avoid as if it is Finnegan’s Wake and you have a headache: The language barrier to this novel is notable. If you do not enjoy novels that use a heavy amount of jargon, pidgin, or slang then you should pass on this one.

American Pastoral: As Striking a Portrait of the Middle Class as Ever Existed

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Excuse me while I gather myself. American Pastoral is a slow burn with bountiful excursions down rabbit trails that really have no necessary meaning to the story itself. In a way, it is the only novel I’ve read that approaches the wacky writing of Dostoevsky (in the words of Hemingway: “How does someone who writes so poorly make me feel so much?”), by which I mean that Roth’s style is meandering, often with short conversations resulting in pages upon pages of text that lets the reader know every single detail of every memory that possibly comes into a character’s head. As a result there are moments in which a reader can be greatly frustrated with the text, encountering backstory after backstory of characters one can never be certain are even important to the piece as a whole. Yet, identically to Dostoevsky, when suddenly, as if by magic, Roth is on, what was once tedious becomes impossible to get enough of. Every word becomes as important as the last utterance of a family member on their death bed. In American Pastoral, these Dostoevskian moments pieced together form a novel that is perhaps worthy of being declared the great American novel.

In the same way that the Coen Brothers’ film, Fargo, tags itself with the phrase, “A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere,” American Pastoral can likely be tagged, “A lot can happen to no one.” Roth’s protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov is a classic American man: captain of the football team, joined the marines, married a beauty queen, took over his father’s business, and started his own plans for a nuclear family beginning with a daughter. And it is these classic elements, almost prototypical checklists for the American Dream, that function to cement Swede Levov as just another successful nobody. By doing nothing but following the instructions of his father and the blueprint for happiness, Swede lives out his life as an inherently neutral person, minding his own business and making sure to keep his nose out of other’s. Yet this all comes crashing down when his daughter, Merry, who had been increasingly outspoken and ferocious in her opposition to the war in Vietnam, blows up a local post office and general store, killing a man in the process. What is chronicled in the pages of American Pastoral is Swede’s subsequent life following Merry’s act of terrorism and quick disappearance.

Swede can barely hear two sentences from someone without thinking about Merry and just where it all went wrong with her. The basic problem Swede has, however, is that absolutely nothing went wrong. He gave her everything she could have ever wanted. In his flashbacks that occur through the novel it becomes apparent that he let her rant and call him a racist and a capitalist pig who sells his workers out for profit and “unjustly owns the means of production.” And  often Swede has absolutely no clue what Merry is talking about, he does not even begin to understand what she is so upset about when he makes sure she knows that he agrees with what he can comprehend from her tirades. Feeling like he has no other choice but to cling to a hope, he chalks her rants up to being a phase. A phase in which she reads The Communist Manifesto and falls in with Alice Palmer on the weekends. Most of their disconnect hinges on Vietnam war, and whether or not it is good enough to be against it, or if more should be done. When Merry lobs linguistic grenades at Swede that contain the words “privilege” and “pig bastard” Swede has no idea how to take it beyond washing his hands of her ideology and then wondering how it all went wrong.

And that is the pure brilliance of American Pastoral. Within the relationship between Swede, the Liberal All-American Middle Class Male, and Merry, the leftist bent on revolution, Philip Roth contains and comments upon the entire American political spectrum. What makes the novel a work of genius is how utterly neutral Roth stays throughout it, despite the fact that in the first 100 pages we are made excruciatingly aware of the fact that this is the writing of Skip Zuckerman, not Philip Roth. That Zuckerman maintains his voice without infecting the way the characters’ opinions are given is masterful. Any disagreement a person has with anything a character in this novel says comes purely from the person reading. Reading American Pastoral with an open mind is to be pulled in so many directions from so many well-thought out perspectives that it is nearly maddening. As you read you get the same inkling that occurs when reading Dostoevsky, even when you enjoy it; the inkling: what the hell is this even about? Yet the novel keeps going beyond all thought possible. Swede has so many normal things to say, yet all of them read as if they are a revelation in this chaotic world. Merry’s bogus life truly is, in some moments, the correct way to live by pure ideology.

American Pastoral, at its best, captures a maddening and infuriating perversity that is at the core of America, namely that our values are unreachable. That doing everything right, living the American way and achieving the Dream, still ends in utter despair. Nothing one can do is good enough, and this is what Swede cannot cope with, nor can Merry accept. It is brilliant in all aspects, from its humor to its wrenching sadness. A masterpiece.

Recommended to: Those that have wondered what it would be like if Dostoevsky was an American.

Avoid as if it is a wholesome church super bowl party where the commercials are being skipped: This is exactly the sort of novel that seems absolutely pointless if you read it for plot and plot alone. There is no plot, just a frame of reference that masquerades as one. If you need that guiding force, then this one is not for you.