The Swede’s Perfect Life

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The Swede was a star athlete in his high school’s football, basketball, and baseball team. He could go on to be a member of the sports teams like Yankees or Giants in New York, but as a dutiful son he gave up his own dream to serve as an apprentice in his father’s leather glove company in Newark. In the post WWII era, the business boomed and the Swede became successful. To add to this perfect picture, he married Miss New Jersey. They had a big house and raised a daughter named Merry.

However all this perfect life of the Swede crumbled when Merry, at the age of 16, blew up the local post office one early morning and killed a doctor who came to post his letter before his morning shift. It’s part of the larger movement of the social unrest during the era of anti-Vietnam-War protests. The Swede’s life was blown to pieces instantly. Since Merry told her classmates about her upcoming actions, she became a criminal in national news, and went into hiding afterwards.

The Swede’s wife Dawn had a nervous breakdown and went to a mental institution for a while. When she came back, she wanted to build a new house. Their marriage subsequently fell apart and they divorced.

After disappearing for five years, Merry emerged. Now was she going to damage the Swede’s life even more?

This is the book “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth. It is a very well written book with a lot of quotable lines. I especially like the parts when immigrants’ life are described and immigrants’ children’s life are written with familiarity and affection–they grew up, feeling the pressure and expectation of their parents. In addition, the hard work and long hour at the leather factory is also described in detail–the terrible working condition is depicted as well as the enjoyment of the workmanship.

However what really makes me laugh about this book is its theme–at least I feel it is the author’s theme–that men usually have a wonderful life, but women around them spoil the fun for them.

First it is the Swede. He’s doing great and things go well in his life. Then Merry, his daughter, blew this perfect picture to pieces and became a fugitive murderer. The Swede’s wife Dawn, the former Miss New Jersey, did a lot to make the life of the Swede less enjoyable. First she built a farm next to their house to raise and milk cows, which didn’t make a penny of profit. Second, after Merry became an anti-war criminal, Dawn couldn’t help or comfort her husband. Instead she had a depression and mental breakdown herself, which required his assistance in recovery. After this episode, she wanted to build a new house and ended up having an affair with the architect, which was the last straw that broke their marriage.

The second one is the Swede’s high school buddy Barry, who was a law professor. Barry married Marcia, a literature professor. Marcia didn’t wear feminine clothes, was a “non-conformist with staggering self certainty”. She often did things to “inform you that nothing you were saying was correct.” And of course Barry’s perfect life is half spoiled by such an ugly figure like Marcia in the opinion of the Swede.

The third one is the architect Mr. Orcutt, who lived in the same town. Mr. Orcutt was handsome, resourceful, and engaging. He was a perfect figure and very involved in the community affairs. However Mrs. Orcutt was “a haggard old woman, an undernourished drunk” who could have “three scotch and four cigarettes in under one hour.”

I really can’t help laughing that in the author’s circle and in his world view, there are so many perfect examples of men who are handsome, responsible, moral, and successful. And unfortunately their women are all train-wrecks who wreak havoc on their men’s life.

The author is obviously biased and I really want to say something to rebut his claim, but how can I say it in a way that’s not cliche and not boring?

18 thoughts on “The Swede’s Perfect Life

    1. LOL. You are soooooo right. Actually he is not completely wrong. That’s the sad part. A woman’s life has so many dangers that often it is easy to fall into one pitfall of another. And women can be trainwrecks even if they have made the best choice. For example, in the book , the architect’s wife came from a wealthy family, had a great education and an enviable marriage. However when her kids went off to college, she suffered from empty nest syndrome, which pushed her into alcoholism. I mean she can do everything right and still be thrown into an emotional mess that she can’t very well deal with.

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      1. So true, he’s never completely wrong in his books and that’s what irritates me too. He is right about a lot of things but the way he chooses to portray them and generalise them really takes away from that.
        Women can absolutely be a wreck and they also posses some awful qualities sometimes which he is correct about.

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        1. Yes, it is his portrayal that is very interesting. He seems to say when men’s exertions are constructive and glorious, women’s exertions are usually destructive to men and to women themselves, even in those cases when women are cornered and have nowhere to go but fight. He’s not exactly saying that women’s fight is wrong, but rather he is saying that it is no good. For example, in “the human stain”, Faunia Farley fought her step father and her heartless family, but only to be disowned and thrown out, ending up really badly for her. And also with Professor Roux, who was promoted by Silk. Her striving and exertion don’t amount much either, except to cause injustice to Silk and even unfavorable condition for herself. Also Silk’s wife’s and Silk’s daughter’s exertion sound almost ridiculous, ineffectual, inconsequential– i guess only the traditional role for women are constructive and any other things women do are questionable, at least in the author’s opinion.

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        2. Yes, we definitely see that in a lot of books. I think what he tries to portray is that women are at their best when they embrace their stereotypical role because anything other than that brings them problems and makes them problematic themselves. He seems to be under the assumption that women thrive when they embrace their traditional roles which I can guarantee you is rarely the case.

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        3. Well, I heard a lot of comments from both men and women who lauded women’s traditional role. And these men and women voice explicit and implicit remarks to defend traditional value. I mean the Asian community here is soooooo conservative that it’s more conservative than if we were to live in Asia. And women are more conservative than men in general here and often drop comments aiming to restrict and shame people who they don’t completely approve. I almost feel that it’s a little cult like. And women’s cooking skills are worshiped more than ever since food tend to be more expensive here and food has to be processed in the old way to taste good. Isn’t this just my luck? I always try to be more free, only to find myself being surrounded by people who want to chain themselves up.

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        4. I have noticed some pretty conservative voices in my community too but luckily it’s not too bad especially for me since my parents are quite liberal. I think women are often the loudest about preserving traditional roles because it’s the way they have always lived and people doing things from the norm forces them to question their life which they don’t want to do. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. The harder someone defends traditional roles, the more likely it is they are unhappy but don’t want to admit it.

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        5. You know probably I’ve become more sensitive through the years. Actually this kind of things are never really conspicuously aggressive, but most of it is subtle verbal “abuse” to try to rein people in, you know, so that people can be traditional together and nobody gets the escape. LOL. Subtlety is the name of the day. For example, narcissistic abuse and sexism and racism can all be very subtle and often not obvious at all. I would love to present it in my writing but I know it is not easy to get it well presented. LOL.

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        6. Yes, you’re absolutely right about the subtle methods. Back in the day it was much more obvious but now things like sexism and racism are often very subtle and micro aggressions are a good example of that. I would love to write about the topic too but I don’t think I can do it justice so I’ll leave it to people who can lol.

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    1. Yes, probably it can be reframed in some other way and reflect a point that’s completely opposite to what I am saying here. That’s exactly possible.

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  1. It seems you’ve already made a statement through this post. Yes, certain biases are reflected through an author’s writing. It could be specific to one piece of writing or could reflect somewhat in every piece. I suppose freedom of expression has its ups and downs depending on how one views it. 🙂

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  2. As is so often the case, you have made me want to read the book!

    Yes – it’s difficult to imagine a book like that being written now because it doesn’t fit the Zeitgeist. Women nowadays have to be “strong” and “feisty” whether they like it or not! Men are portrayed as hapless. Maybe one day we can reach a sensible equilibrium where people are just people.

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