Joseph E Bird

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American Pastoral

American Pastoral

“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.

“The Swede.”

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.



How to win a Pulitzer.

I recently came across a short piece written by Joe Bunting that I found on Jane Friedman’s website, 8 Techniques to Win You a Pulitzer. I won’t go into the details (click the link for the explanation) but here they are:

1. Write long sentences.
2. Write short sentences.
3. Be lyrical.
4. Make an allusion to the Bible, or Moby Dick, or Milton.
5. Use an eponym to name your characters.
6. Be specific.
7. Write a story within a story (or a story within a story within a story).
8. Have a wide scope.

As I’m making my way through Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, I see the first technique over and over. In this example, The Swede, the book’s tortured soul, is wrestling with what he should have done, didn’t do, did do, might have done – the kind of endless hand-wringing that we all know too well. He just does it one long sentence.

“But instead he had driven directly home from the office and, because he could never calculate a decision free of its emotional impact on those who claimed his love; because seeing them suffer was his greatest hardship; because ignoring their importuning and defying expectations, even when they would not argue reasonably or to the point, seemed to him an illegitimate use of his superior strength; because he could not disillusion anyone about the kind of selfless son, husband, and father he was; because he had come so highly recommended to everyone, he sat across from Dawn at the kitchen table, watching her deliver a long, sob-wracked, half demented speech, a plea to tell nothing to the FBI.”

That’s one long sentence, complete with semicolons and everything. Technique No. 2 should be easier to master.

Writer’s Log – 11/27/16

In novel writing, much importance is placed upon the first sentence, the need to capture the imagination of the reader – love at first sight, if you will. Certainly there are many terrific opening lines for great books. (Do you own Google search, just for kicks.) Is this one of them?

“The Swede.”

It’s the opening of American Pastoral, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth.

Ok, let’s not be so literal so as to limit the “opening line” to simply the first sentence. Let’s say we’re evaluating the opening in general. Roth follows the not-so-descriptive introduction of one of his pivotal characters with this:

“During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete.”

Are you hooked yet?  No?  Me neither.

And yet I kept reading. Page after page after page about the old neighborhood and its people. Not much action. Some conversations in a class reunion about days gone by.  in medias res?  No, not really. It’s all backstory. It’s what writing coaches would call exposition, and they greatly advise against it.

Take another look at that second sentence. It’s really long. The coach would advise to break it up, to get that comprehension level down a couple of notches. Roth also uses big words that most readers would have to look up. Again, not something they say you should do. It takes the reader out of the story.

I used to read a lot of John Grisham. Lots of story and action, and Grisham will keep you turning those pages. He follows the rules, has lots of fans, and piles of money. Roth probably does too, but he’s not exactly a household name.

Yet Philip Roth is a highly respected novelist. He breaks the rules and wins a Pulitzer.  How?

On page 86, he wrote this:

“The daugher who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the couterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.”

It took Roth 85 pages to get to the reader to the point that the meat of the sentence is understood mentally and emotionally, and so on-point that its resonance is profound.

I’m starting to get it.

It’s all about what you’re trying to acccomplish. It’s all about what you want your writing to do, and not so much about how many people read it. The truth is, the odds are greatly against any of us writing a best-seller. If you’re going to put in the hours, it had better be for something worthwhile. It had better bring at least one reader some satifisfaction, that one reader being the author.

Footnote:  The number one best-selling author from 1996 to 2000 was John Grisham. Philip Roth didn’t even crack the top 15 in 1997, the year American Pastoral won the Pulitzer.






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