The writer who unleashed American Pastoral did not write this book. The man—yes; but the writer who articulated with fierce and at times even savage brilliance—as if it had to be articulated—the tale about the Swede (so impeccable in the mind of the youth, narrator Nathanial Zuckerman, who had to one day become a writer if only to articulate with some sort of brilliance this essential American story) whose impeccable life and impeccable family, and even at last his very own impeccability, had to be engulfed and twisted by the country and the time in which he lived, America, the ’60s, because that was the idea with which America itself flooded the writer’s head.
This is not the same writer. Or does not appear to be, at any rate. In this, his ninth and final installment in the Zuckerman series, Roth juxtaposes his old narrator, Zuckerman (now 71 years old and a product of that country and time that twisted the Swede), with modern-day America by plucking him back into the heart of New York after 11 years of reclusion in the New England mountains. In the city, Zuckerman, a man more intelligent than most, now suffering from prostate cancer and the shame of its incontinence, manages to revisit the people and storylines left unresolved in the first Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer; and it is in New York that he experiences “a merciless encounter between the no-longers and the not-yets.” This appears to be the high idea of the book—an intelligent idea that this writer seems to have wanted to get across.
Wanted, merely: That is the difference. The author of Pastoral writes as if he must relate that book’s idea, not just wants to. Thus, where in Pastoral the faults associated with Roth, such as his amateur observations of daily life, his overkill on sex and his occasional clumsiness with prose, become irrelevant in the fierce and savage brilliance of the story, they are noticeable in this book, the writer of which doesn’t seem to exude the same urgency or import. Accordingly, there is little reason to lament Zuckerman’s exit.
This writer is still good, though, worthy of his numerous awards and titles, a living and active American giant. Make no mistake about it. But the writer of Exit Ghost is not the kind to whom the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in Literature—the 2007 winner of which was named on October 11 and was once again not Roth.
His name has surfaced every year since Pastoral’s publication in 1997 as an American frontrunner for the most estimable recognition a serious man of literature can obtain. He does not possess Hemingway’s masterful control with prose, nor Morrison’s poetic powers, and he does not “more than hold his own” among the modern masters, as the Academy praised Steinbeck when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. He is not a heir to Sophocles and Shakespeare like Faulkner. And he is not the pioneer Lewis was. No. Roth’s praise is that he is a workhorse among America’s literary culture: skilled, dependable, relentless, unflagging and very popular.
He has been a champion among many of the people whose lives and language revolve in and around books—authors, academics, critics—and it is about this culture that Roth writes throughout the Zuckerman saga, as if it’s what he knows best. But that, history shows, does not merit the Nobel Prize, the one major honor that has eluded Roth’s stellar career in fiction. Books like American Pastoral, however, do—as do the writers who had to write them. Let’s hope the Swedish Academy considers him and not the writer who wanted to write Exit Ghost when they select the 2008 winner next October.