“I have to go write my review,” I said.
“Why do you have to write a review?” she asked.
“I don’t have to write a review.”
And then I realized that, yes, I have to. Not that anybody really cares what I, an overfed, long-haired leaping gnome, thinks about a book that’s almost 20 years old. Still, I need to get this out of my system. Let’s call it writer’s therapy.
As I said before, I can’t think of anybody in my circle of friends and family to whom I would recommend this book. It’s just too much…of everything. And yet, I’m glad I read it. It was good exercise.
As if to answer who the book is about, the first sentence leaves no doubt.
It’s about Seymour Levov, aka The Swede, and his seemingly ideal American family set in the time of the Vietnam War. The pivotal event: his daughter blows up a post office as a protest to the war and a man is killed. The daughter goes on the run.
This plot line is slowly dripped (more slowly than my father’s decrepit coffee maker) as the author tells us everything about everybody that dares make an appearance in the novel.
Warning: Never volunteer to be a character in a Philip Roth story. He knows all and tells all.
And this is why I’m glad I read the book. It was one heckuva an exercise in character development. Layer after layer after layer. After layer, after layer, after layer. After layer, after layer, after layer, with enough hints at a story to keep you interested. Like the daughter has been missing for five years. And then, three-quarters into the book, he finds her. Ok, we know the characters pretty well, so now the story is going to pick up.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Everytime something is about to happen, we get more dense paragraphs of exposition. Layer, after layer, after layer.
Then there’s the character Marcia Umanoff, a militant non-conformist whose duty in life is to make people uncomfortable. She’s a thinker and disdains simpletons. She’ll do anything to get under your skin. An elitist. Her actions in the novel are irritating, yet the perfect foil to the perfect world of the perfect Seymour Levov. I’m not giving away much to tell you that his world is not as perfect as it seems. Marcia Umanoff represents reality.
So here comes Joe Bird, a simple man (with a simple name) taking on a highly-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Because he concludes that the book will not be in his top ten of all time, an elitist might conclude that the allegory and symbolism and sheer depth of the narrative might be too much for such a simple man. The elitist may be right.
Page 413: “These deep thinkers were the only people he could not stand to be around for long, these people who’d never manufactured anything or seen anything manufactured, who did not know what things were made of or how a company worked, who, aside from a house or a car, had never sold anything and didn’t know how to sell anything, who’d never hired a worker, fired a worker, trained a worker, been fleeced by a worker – people who knew nothing of the intricacies or the risks of building a business or running a factory but who nonetheless imagined that they knew everything worth knowing.”
Yeah. It’s like that.