The threat of Jewish terrorism

Almost at the end of Roth’s American Pastoral, a couple more quick thoughts about it. It has turned out to be a trifle disappointing, though overall very good, as more than 400 pages of nearly uninterrupted ruminations about a single event, first by the author then by the protagonist, have sufficed to illustrate but not really to penetrate the psychology behind it. In a way, that seems to be the point. Roth, with his historical determinism and fatalism, would seem to concur with the terrorist daughter, who sets off a bomb in a postal depot, when she says to her father: “You can’t explain away what I’ve done by motives, Daddy. I certainly wouldn’t explain away what you’ve done by motives.” But this belief, whether it be true or false, runs pretty much counter to the entire impetus behind novel-writing, and as such doesn’t make for very good reading insofar as its spirit informs the narrative, much as books actuated by a belief in the meaninglessness of language tend to be really bad if not unreadable. And I am in addition rather skeptical of this relentless drive to make all the characters and situations representative of some broad societal reality, as if to invest them with a signicance they would not otherwise possess, but which ends by flattening or hollowing them to some extent.

In one respect, though, Roth seems to have hit upon an important point, namely that the radicalism of the ’60’s, far from being somehow an invasion of American ideals, was in fact very much an expression of them. That radicalism was really more social than political–simply the belief in revolution didn’t quite adequately capture it. It was the explosion of an unusually large youth population just at the point they all came of age, an inter-generational conflict in effect between children and parents, the rupture of the family all over, and this is at the core of the novel as well. Maybe the search for independence and autonomy, which is at the root of much of what is distinctive about American history and society, after having lost the frontier and thus the ability to realize it geographically, next sought to do so socially through a break with the surroundings into which one was born. Certainly the ritual of ostentatiously, even violently breaking with the family, often by clearly defining differences in taste, habits and even morals, has become virtually de rigueur in America. This must have been rather shocking to immigrant families who thought that they could cherry-pick the financial opportunity and independence of American life while avoiding its atomizing effect.

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