American Pastoral by Philip Roth

According to the blurb, this is Roth’s masterpiece. To which all I can say is… meh.

I don’t know. It’s a good book, a broad-sweep fat novel of the old school, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I don’t think Roth is much of a prose stylist, for a start. Perfectly competent, and sporadically rather better than that, but not one of the magicians.

And it’s just a bit… shouty. Perhaps that’s what the Guardian had in mind when they described it as ‘raging and elegiac’. He’s like the Bellman in the Hunting of the Snark: ‘what I tell you three times is true’. And he does say everything three times, hammering away at each point. Bang. Bang. Bang.

There may be a bit of trans-Atlantic disconnect going on here, but for whatever reason, this didn’t push my buttons.

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

The NY Times ‘sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”‘. You can see the list of works that got more than one vote here. I’ve read embarrassingly few of them; one that I have read is the most recent, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I read in Spain.

Considering the glowing reviews I read, I thought it was completely ordinary. The historical aspect of it – the speculation of how the US could have wandered into fascism under a Lindbergh presidency – was quite interesting and convincingly done. But as a literary work it did nothing for me. It felt like it could have been written by a journalist or a historian to make a historical point. I was reading it directly after some Pynchon, which probably made the style seem a bit flat in comparison, but still, the characterisation and dialogue seemed unremarkable to me. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood for it, and I’m pretty sure that if it had been set in, say, Surrey instead of Newark it would have been more immediate for me, but I still wonder how it would have been received if it didn’t have Roth’s name attached to it.

The Pynchon, on the other hand (Gravity’s Rainbow), clearly was a remarkable bit of writing, but I’m not sure it was more than the sum of its parts. I think that’s generally a problem, though, with these sprawling, disjointed modernist novels going right back to Joyce and indeed Sterne – can the diversions and oddities justify themselves.

Anyway, I’m now rambling. I think it’s probably a mistake trying to talk coherently about literature and listen to the cricket at the same time. Jayawardene and Maharoof are doing a good job at the moment settling down the Sri Lankans but

And at that moment Hoggard took Maharoof’s wicket, caught and bowled. Leaving Sri Lanka on 129/7 in reply to 551/6 declared, which, in translation for my American readers, means they’re almost certainly going to get thrashed.

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