Sunday, May 10, 2015

Horrors – "Gloves" (2007)

Yesterday [I found] a leather glove
From the slim-fingered hand of a woman

Philip Roth is perhaps the most honored living American novelist, but I had read only two of his early books – Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint – before deciding to take a run at American Pastoral, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and is considered by most writers, critics, and editors to be one of the very best contemporary American novels.  (One critic even called it "the finest American novel published during my lifetime.")

Philip Roth
I decided to read the book on the recommendation of a young and talented writer I know who reads even more than I do.  She told me that part of American Pastoral  takes place at the narrator's 45th high-school reunion.  Since I'm planning to attend my 45th reunion next month, that made American Pastoral irresistible to me.  

But the novel isn't really about the narrator's reunion.  It's about Seymour "Swede" Levov, the older brother of one of the narrator's classmates.  

Swede leads a charmed life for many years.  He's a much-admired star athlete in high school who serves in the Marines at the tail end of World War II, then marries a former Miss New Jersey.  His father is a manufacturer of ladies' gloves, and Swede eventually takes over the business and is a big success.  (You'll learn a lot about the manufacture of gloves if you read this book.)  

Swede has a daughter named Merry whom he dotes on.  But when that daughter is 16, she  decides to demonstrate her opposition to the Vietnam War by blowing up the local post office, killing a kindly and beloved local doctor in the process.  

She goes underground for many years, giving Swede plenty of time to rehash every detail of her childhood in a fruitless attempt to figure out exactly what he and the girl's mother did wrong.  (If your teenaged daughter blows up a building, it must be because you did something wrong – right?)  Swede eventually tracks his daughter down, but she has been transformed into a very strange and physically repulsive young woman.  

No man should have to bear what Swede bears in the course of American Pastoral.  The worst part of the whole thing isn't what happened, but the utter incomprehensibility of why it happened.

As one critic has noted, Swede calls to mind two other fathers whose suffered terribly:

Swede's trajectory is tragic.  Fate has raised him high in order to see how far he might fall.  He contains traces of Job – his fidelity to America tested by brutal and arbitrary misfortune – and also of Lear, snakebit by one of the most floridly and obscenely ungrateful children in all of literature.
Here are a few quotes from American Pastoral, accompanied (for no particular reason) by photos I took last summer on Mt. Desert Island in Maine: 

Never in his life had Swede had an occasion to ask himself, "Why are things the way they are?" Why should he bother, when the way they were was always perfect? Why are things the way they are? The question to which there is no answer, and up till then he was so blessed he didn't even know the question existed.

A beautiful wife.  A beautiful house.  Runs his business like a charm. . . . This is how successful people live.  They're good citizens.  They feel lucky.  They feel grateful.  God is smiling down on them.  There are problems, they adjust.  And then everything changes and it becomes impossible.  Nothing is smiling down on anybody.  And who can adjust then?  Here is someone not set up for life's working out poorly, let alone for the impossible. . . . The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy – that is every man's tragedy.

*     *     *     *     *
You think you know what a man is?  You have no idea what a man is.  You think you know what a daughter is?  You have no idea what a daughter is.  You think you know what this country is?  You have no idea what this country is.  You have a false image of everything.  All you know is what a fucking glove is.

How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess.  He just did not have the combination to that lock.  Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good.  Everybody who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal.  Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent.  And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress – probably had never begun to see into himself.  What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed?  

People were standing up everywhere shouting, "This is me! This is me!" Every time you looked at them they stood up and told you who they were, and the truth of it was that they had no more idea who or what they were than he had. . . . They ought to be standing up and shouting, "This isn't me! This isn't me!" They would if they had any decency. "This isn't me!" Then you might know how to proceed through the flashing bullshit of this world. 

He had seen how improbable it is that we should come from one another and how improbable it is that we do come from one another.  Birth, succession, the generations, history – utterly improbable.  He had seen that we don't come from one another, that it only appears that we come from one another.

Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper.  There is nothing we can do to dispose of that.  No, loneliness shouldn’t surprise us, as astonishing to experience as it may be. . . . My stupid, stupid Merry dear, stupider even that your stupid father, not even blowing up buildings helps. . . . There is no protest to be lodged against loneliness – not all the bombing campaigns in history have made a dent in it.  The most lethal of manmade explosives can’t touch it.  Stand in awe not of Communism, my idiot child, but of ordinary, everyday loneliness. . . . Put your money on it, bet on it, worship it – bow down in submission not to Karl Marx, my stuttering, angry, idiot child, not to Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung – bow down to the great god of Loneliness! 

There are a hundred different ways to hold someone's hand.  There are the ways you hold a child's hand, the ways you hold a friend's hand, the ways you hold the hands of the departing and of the dying and the dead.  He held Dawn's hand the way a man holds the hand of a woman he adores . . .
*     *     *     *     *

He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.  And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again.  It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one's history.

*     *     *     *     * 

The Horrors are an English group that formed in Southend-on-Sea in 2005.  "Gloves" was released on their first album, Strange House, in 2007.

Here's "Gloves":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

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