Zuckerman the Unreliable
American Pastoral is narrated by Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, a friend and admirer of the Levovs, in particular of Seymour “The Swede” Levov. Zuckerman tells the story of The Swede’s tragic fall from youthful perfection due to his daughter’s act of terrorism in protest of the Vietnam War. However, if Zuckerman is truly a friend and peer of the Swede, Zuckerman’s seemingly omniscient knowledge of the Swede’s private affairs and liaisons proves that Zuckerman simply made up much of the Swede’s exciting life.
From an early age, Zuckerman is infatuated with the perfection of the Swede and his embodiment of the American Dream. When the Swede calls Zuckerman “Skip,” Zuckerman tells the reader, “I was thrilled. I blushed, I was thrilled,” which clearly denotes how emotionally charged Zuckerman was after being given a fairly innocent and common nickname. However, the tricolon of terse first-person verbs and the repetition of “I was thrilled,” emphasizes that this was a very personal moment for Zuckerman and that the “secret, personal link” they apparently shared had an immediate, deep effect. This obsession and hyperbolic reaction to an ordinary scene suggests that Zuckerman is blindly infatuated with the Swede, a fact which might ultimately lead him to make scenes up or read too much into the Levovs’ lives, clear signs of an unreliable narrator. Moreover, at the very beginning of the novel, Zuckerman opens with simply “The Swede” before mentioning that Zuckerman himself was a classmate of the Swede’s younger brother, and only ten pages after that do we finally acknowledge that Zuckerman is “the author.” Indeed, even when we do find out the identity of the narrator, it is entirely subordinate to the Swede’s —“The Swede’s younger brother was my classmate…’You’re Zuckerman?’/‘I’m Zuckerman.’” Zuckerman, then, does this to set out the novel as entirely about the Swede’s life, which would perhaps suggest a level of reliability; however, by placing his own hopefully unbiased ideas as accessory to the story, Zuckerman allows for them to be altered depending on the excitement and thrill that the Swede is generating. Roth’s narrator thus “appears as self-deceived as the character he is attempting to lay bare” (Literary Kicks) as he does anything to persuade himself that the Swede’s life is exceptional.
Zuckerman, fairly early on in the novel, admits that what he will write may actually be wrong. He tells the reader that “You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people…without an overload of bias,” which at first reading somewhat explains the task of a biographer: to view the person’s life as impartially and objectively as possible, documenting simply the facts of that life. However, Zuckerman then admits that “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living.” Such ideas invert Zuckerman’s early explanation, as he implies that even though one might attempt to be unprejudiced, it is futile and we thus get the wrong understanding. However, while the passage presents some brutal honesty and “is clearly intended as a disclaimer” (Literary Kicks), we cannot pass over the fact that Zuckerman openly admits that what he is about to write is most likely wrong, no matter whether he perceives that imperfection as human nature. Indeed, not only does the “bias” extend to his initial misreading of the Swede, but also to his overall documentation of life. Only thirty-five pages in, and Zuckerman himself has told us that he is an unreliable narrator.
Zuckerman narrates the novel seemingly omnisciently, telling the reader of various episodes which may never have happened. He openly leaves time gaps in the narrative, and the use of hindsight in Roth’s storyline could suggest that Zuckerman then spends the remaining novel filling in those breaks. Zuckerman writes about “One night in the summer of 1985” only to then jump on the next page to a letter received “a couple of weeks before Memorial Day, 1995.” This ten year break perhaps implies that Zuckerman only has an firm idea of what occurred in 1985 and in 1995, and in order to tell the Swede’s story must imagine what happens in between. Later on in the novel, Zuckerman even writes “To the honey sweet strains of ‘Dream,’ I pulled away from myself…and I dreamed a realistic chronicle and…I found him in Deal,” prefacing an incestuous moment between the Swede and his 11 year old daughter at the beach—“Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother”. This language of dreaming and creation could only lead the reader to believe that Zuckerman turns away from the Swede’s actual life, and reimagines it, perversely, at a moment of extreme taboo.
Zuckerman’s knowledge of the moments with Rita Cohen in the hotel room, Merry’s confession to the bombings, and the affairs between Dawn and Orcutt and the Swede and Sheila all further begs one question: how does he know these things? However, in line with the belief that humans should always get it wrong, Zuckerman questions the art of writing, and suggests that making it up is what fiction is all about. He asks, “Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do…summoning people out of words…?” and concludes again that “It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong.” This metafiction whereby Zuckerman connotes that to strictly and accurately confine a person’s life into 400 pages is demeaning suggests that the life of the Swede is, within the story of American Pastoral, fictitious. In a way, Zuckerman becomes Roth’s alter-ego: “Zuckerman acts as an added layer between author and fiction” (Paul Smith). However, to argue that Zuckerman is Roth would be to suggest that Roth was a childhood friend of the Swede but then also omniscient, a paranormal statement. And so, the only conclusion is that the only reason Zuckerman can write about the Swede’s traumatic events is that he made them up. Zuckerman then, beyond the moments he does actually spend with the Swede, is not only unreliable but also entirely false.
The narrator thus questions what it means to be ordinary and debates, within the American lifestyle, whether this is actually a good thing. After the Swede tells Zuckerman about his “eighteen-year-old Chris, sixteen-year-old Steve, and fourteen-year-old Kent,” Zuckerman calls the Swede a “human platitude.” Zuckerman, perhaps sarcastically, writes that “Swede Levov’s life, for all I knew, had been most simply and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain.” And so this might imply that while earlier on Zuckerman saw the Swede as totally perfect, this conception has now gotten boring, and having become an author, Zuckerman desires a higher degree of excitement. Even further, however, “right in the American grain” becomes a criticism of the American Dream; if being ordinary means that the Swede has succeeded at the American Dream, then the American Dream must therefore be boring. In analyzing Zuckerman, “we can see his motivations for using the narrative to shape his own views of America” (Paul Smith). And so Zuckerman makes a foray into his metafiction once more, as he suggests that writing about an ordinary life is not worthwhile. Whenever authors have written about the American Dream — John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman — on the whole they have demonstrated the hardships and fruitlessness that come from trying to achieve this ideal. Hence, Zuckerman creates the Swede’s life as a vehicle for his own ideology, perhaps changing events to suit his own message. Perhaps even the opening tactic of entirely centering on the Swede was simply a way to trick the reader into thinking that the novel is uncontaminated with bias.
Within American Pastoral, Roth creates his narrator as a blindly infatuated yet finally cynical author, who openly admits that a writer’s job is to dream, get the truth wrong and makes things up to keep the story interesting. Indeed, while Roth’s statement could apply to even himself to suggest that perhaps he got Zuckerman’s life wrong to keep the story interesting, if we are to believe that Zuckerman is a narrator in his own right, the reader must conclude something rather different. The only reason that Zuckerman is able to know so much about the Swede’s private life and then remember it all to write in hindsight is that he made it up, and hence he is, ultimately, an unreliable narrator.
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American Pastoral is narrated by Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, a friend and admirer of the Levovs, in particular of Seymour “The Swede” Levov. Zuckerman tells the story of The Swede’s […]