martian pastoral
a comparative study
of
a fighting man of mars
by edgar rice burroughs
and
american pastoral
by philip roth

[rejected page-title:
A Fighting Man of New Jersey]

The name of the game here is - Juxtaposition.  The way to play it is to jam together two works that are mutually quite irrelevant, allowing us to employ the technique of parallax whereby we can deepen our understanding of something by viewing it from the most widely separate perspectives: so wide, as to be vastly different not only in style and message but in genre also.  

home_page_fmm.jpgno comment from The Guardian
American Pastoral"Marvellous...raging and elegiac" (The Guardian)

Stid:  Just a moment before you spout on.  What's the point of comparing genres? 

Zendexor:  Like I tried to explain just now, it's to maximise the differences.

Stid:  But such an exercise must forfeit credibility from the start!

Zendexor:  Why?

Stid:  Why?  Because you'd be bound to use unfair criteria for both of the works that you're comparing!  A criterion suitable for one of them is sure to be irrelevant to the other.  Like comparing D H Lawrence with Raymond Chandler.  Or, in the world of classic movies, like comparing King Kong with The Maltese Falcon.

Zendexor:  Whoa there, Stid, you have just blundered.  I haven't read Lawrence, but certainly there IS an obvious comparison between the two films you've just mentioned.  In fact it's so close you might almost say King Kong and The Maltese Falcon belong to the same genre.  Both films feature the dominance of rogue heavies: a stop--motion gorilla in the one case and Sidney Greenstreet in the other.

Stid:  All right, clever dick, but here's one you won't wriggle out of.  Think of -

Zendexor:  Too late, too late!  I have wrested the initiative from you and now you must hear me out.  But for the sake of fairness I promise you'll have more opportunities to miss the point later on.  Indeed although I must confess to a strong bias in favour of the Burroughs book, I shall strive to be continually fair to Philip Roth.

After all, he deserves a fair hearing.  He set himself the enormous challenge of writing an interesting novel without any Martians.  One can only applaud such courage.  Other writers have met that challenge by the inclusion of substitutes for Martian charisma, such as that of Venusians, Mercurians, or even colourful Terrans of one sort or other.  Roth has tried to do it with New Jersey glove-makers.

Stid:  American Pastoral has more to it than that.

Zendexor:  I suspect as much, but if so the expansion is to be found in the second half of the book.  I'm afraid I gave up on page 192.  Why that particular page, I can't remember.  Cumulative exhaustion, I suppose.  You must know the feeling, when you keep on and on reading something that is supposed to be good.  Anyhow, that was my first attempt, long, long ago.  In the last few days I've been trying again, and guess what, having reached page 50 [24th June 2024], I've found some the social/historical reflections quite interesting, though I had to yawn my way through the baseball, the pop music and the gloves.

Stid:  Do you mean to stand there and confess that you haven't even finished the book?  How then can you have the nerve to write a critique?

Zendexor:  Because my failure to get through the text is a key datum in the critique.  Don't worry, I shall persevere to the end now that I've got the bit between my teeth, so to speak.  But the intermediate stage of having given up is a part of the record that's worth pondering, in view of the fact that there was ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE AT ALL of me giving up on A Fighting Man of Mars.  In my view the very best of the Barsoom series (and that's saying a lot), it's a page-turner par excellence.

I might add that I could have tried to bluff my way through American Pastoral by looking up other people's critiques and plot summaries online, so that at least I'd gain a better idea of the novel's theme and purpose -

Harlei:  Not least, the question why the title contains the word "Pastoral".  The plot so far seems thoroughly urban.

Zendexor:  Well, perhaps the protagonists decamp to the fields in the second half.  But what I'm drawing attention to is my virtuous refusal to cheat.  Fact is, some of the respect I've always had for books still lingers in my old age, despite my increasingly rebellious radicalism, so that I still feel under a sort of obligation to read the thing properly before getting others' opinions.  Besides, if there's excitement ahead, I don't want to spoil the surprise.  Now let's get on with the analysis.

the openings

I am Tan Hadron of Hastor, my father is Had Urtur, Odwar of the 1st Umak of the Troops of Hastor...

...As a family we are not rich except in honour, and, valuing this above all mundane possessions, I chose the profession of my father rather than a more profitable career.  The better to further my ambition I came to the capital of the empire of Helium and took service in the troops of Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium...

Compare that with Roth's narrator, Skip Zuckerman:

...my father was a chiropodist whose office was for years our living room and who made enough money for our family to get by on but no more...

I don't suppose chiropody was one of the profitable careers rejected by Tan Hadron of Hastor, but more important for purposes of literary comparison is that for the first fourteen pages of American Pastoral [AP] the reader's attention is taken up with an account of Zuckerman's boyish hero-worship of his athletic acquaintance Swede Levov, whereas, if we juxtapose that with all that happens in the first fourteen pages of A Fighting Man of Mars [FMM] to Hadron, we find that: our Martian [1] falls in love with Sanoma Tora, daughter of his commanding officer Tor Hatan; [2] has his suit rejected by her; [3] learns she has been kidnapped by agents of a foreign power; [4] obtains permission from John Carter, Warlord of Mars, to go look for her and [5] as he prepares to set off, discovers the identity of her kidnappers and sends a message to the Warlord which, unbeknownst to Hadron, never reaches him; then [6] gets going:

As I rose above the towers and domes and lofty landing-stages of Greater Helium, I turned the prow of my flier towards the west and opening wide the throttle sped swiftly through the thin air of dying Barsoom towards that great unknown expanse of her remote south-western hemisphere, somewhere within the vast reaches of which lay Jahar, towards which, I was now convinced, Sanoma Tora was being borne...        

A wonderful start to the book; as smoothy packed with colour and zip as one might possibly wish.  I won't say that the outlook is already hopeless for Skip Zuckerman and Swede Levov, but they have some catching up to do.

areas to steer clear of

I'll have to admit - as I continue my re-reading (27 June 2024) - that both ERB and Philip Roth know how to conjure up lands where evil holds sway.

...We were alone and on foot in a strange and, doubtless, an inhospitable country.

"U-Gor!" I said.  "I have never heard of it.  Have you, Tavia?"

"Yes," she said.  "This is one of the outlying provinces of Jahar.  Once it was a rich and thriving agricultural country, but as it fell beneath the curse of Tul Axtar's mad ambition for man-power, the population grew to such enormous proportions that U-Gor could not support its people.  Then cannibalism started.  It began justly with the eating of the officials that Tul Axtar had sent to enforce his cruel decrees [i.e. destroying all women who did not lay enough eggs].  An army was dispatched to subdue the province, but the people were so numerous that they conquered the army and ate the warriors.  By this time their farms were ruined.  They had no seed and they had developed a taste for human flesh.  Those who wished to till the ground were set upon by bands of roving men and devoured.  For a hundred years they have been feeding upon one another until now it is no longer a populous province, but a waste-land inhabited by roving bands, searching for one another that they may eat."

I shuddered at her recital.  It was obvious that we must escape from this accursed place as rapidly as possible...

Sure enough, they are tracked by the cannibals, in a horrifying and suspenseful episode narrated in chapter XIV of FMM.

Roth, not to be outdone, has this description (from AP p.24-6) of Newark, New Jersey:

"It's the worst city in the world, Skip," the Swede was telling me.  "Used to be the city where they manufactured everything.  Now it's the car-theft capital of the world...  Black kids.  Forty cars stolen in Newark every twenty-four hours...  And they're murder weapons - once they're stolen, they're flying missiles.  The target is anybody in the street - old people, toddlers, doesn't matter...  Four, five kids drooping out the windows, eighty miles an hour - right on Central Avenue...  A car coming the wrong way on a one-way street and they ram me.  Four kids drooping out the windows.  Two of them get out, laughing, joking, and point a gun at my head.  I hand over the keys and one of them takes off in my car...  They ram cop cars in broad daylight...  Killing pedestrians means nothing to them.  Killing motorists means nothing to them.  Killing themselves means nothing to them...  They killed a woman right out in front of our place, same week my car was stolen...  I witness this.  I was leaving for the day.  Tremendous speed.  The car groaning.  Ungodly screeching.  It was terrifying.  It made my blood run cold.  Just driving her own car out of 2nd Street, and this woman, young black woman, gets it.  Mother of three kids.  Two days later it's one of my own employees.  A black guy.  But they don't care, black, white doesn't matter to them..." 

Stid:  Both authors have conspired to make me equally glad that I don't have to live among either the cannibals of U-Gor or the car-thieves of Newark.  It's just a pity that whereas the Martian case is explained (the cause: Tul Axtar) we're not informed of how or why the Terran situation arose.

Zendexor:  But at least in either case we know, what Hadron knew, what to do about it.

eight-page build-ups

Now, on the subject of knowing what to do, we have two cases of wallops-in-preparation whereby our hero is being set up by the author to face a crisis that telegraphs its arrival in advance like a slow-motion John Wayne punch. 

In each case, the punch takes eight pages to connect.

Pages 34-42 of FMM is devoted to the superbly suspenseful episode in which Tan Hadron is trapped in the old tower at Xanator by a great white ape.  You know that eventually Hadron will have to do something to get out of the corner he's in - but what?  The decision-making in his mind is set out lucidly with all the poetry of the situation hauntingly described.  You really feel you're there, stuck in that tower.

Hadron eventually he realizes he has only one chance for survival: to climb down the outside of the building in the dark.

   I cannot recall that ever in my life I felt more alone than I did that night as I was descending the ancient beacon-tower of that deserted city, for not even hope was with me.  So precarious were my holds upon the rough stone that my fingers were soon numb and exhausted.  The only redeeming feature of the descent was the darkness, and a hundred times I blessed my first ancestors that I could not see the dizzy depths below me; but on the other hand it was so dark that I could not tell how far I had descended; nor did I dare to look up where the summit of the tower must have been silhouetted against the starlit sky for fear that in doing so I should lose my balance and be precipitated to the courtyard or the roof below.  The air of Barsoom is thin; it does not greatly diffuse the starlight, and so, while the heavens above were shot with brilliant points of light, the ground beneath was obliterated in darkness...  

Note that these eight pages are gripping for their own sake, rather than a mere positioning of the reader's chin ready to be socked.  The eventual denouement, when he at last gets down from the tower, is equally good.

   ...almost instantly I was made aware that the sound from the interior of the tower had been no hallucination as the huge bulk of a great white ape loomed suddenly from a doorway not a dozen paces from me.
   As he charged me he gave forth no sound.  Evidently he had not held his solitary vigil this long with any intention of sharing his feast with another.  He would dispatch me in silence, and with similar intent I drew my long sword, rather than my pistol, to meet his savage charge...    

Altogether a classic episode, ERB at his best, and it's a pity I haven't the space to quote the eight pages in full.

Now for the piece I've chosen to compare it with, of similar length, in AP. 

Roth offers us no man-eating great white ape, rather he goes further and introduces us to a far more formidably loathsome emotion-eater by name of Rita.

This is the girl who accepts Seymour Levov's well-meant offer to show her round the glove factory.  Whereas Hadron knows what he's up against, poor old Levov is fooled for eight pages into thinking Rita is just a nice student who would appreciate a tour. 

   He felt as though he'd stepped right back into the mouth of the past as they started, side by side, up the wooden steps of the old stairwell.  He heard himself telling her (while simultaneously hearing his father telling her), "You always sort your skins at the northern side of the factory, where there's no direct sunlight.  That way you can really study the skins for quality.  Where the sunlight comes in you can't see.  The cutting room and the sorting, always on the northern side.  Sorting at the top.  The second floor the cutting.  And the first floor, where you came, the making.  Bottom floor finishing and shipping.  We're going to work our way from the top down..."
   That they did.  And he was happy.  He could not help himself.  It was not right.  It was not real.  Something must be done to stop this.  But she was busy taking notes, and he could not stop - a girl who knew the value of hard work and paying attention, and interested in the right things, interested in the preparation of leather and the manufacture of gloves, and to stop himself was impossible...  

Levov's exposition goes on and on until he climaxes with:

"...That's what the cutter does when he does his job right - no stretch left in the length, he's pulled all that out at the table because you don't want the fingers to stretch, but an exactly measured amount of hidden stretch left in the width.  That stretch in the width is a precise calculation."
   "Yes, yes, it's wonderful, absolutely perfect," she told him, opening and closing her hands in turn.  "God bless the precise calculators of this world," she said, laughing, "who leave stretch hidden in the width," and only after Vicky had shut the door to his glass-enclosed office and headed back into the racket of the making department did Rita add, very softly, "She wants her Audrey Hepburn scrapbook."

Thus Rita has revealed, at the end of the eight-page tour, that she is an emissary sent by Levov's almost equally odious daughter, the radical bomber Merry (who is in hiding because she has blown up a post office and killed an innocent man).  Drastic change of atmosphere: Levov meets Rita again to hand over the scrapbook and again later to hand over money, and to hear Rita's taunts and contemptuous left-wing rants.  Levov is prepared to put up with any amount of verbal abuse in order to keep a possible channel of communication open between him and his beloved terrorist daughter.

Stid:  Well, don't you agree it's powerful stuff?  A vivid angle on the tragedy of 1960s America?

Zendexor:  The taunting is powerful stuff, true.  Most pathetic (in the true meaning of the word), as we sympathise with Swede Levov's emotional agony.  And that glove-factory tour had to happen first, to set the stage for the pummelling poor old Levov gets given afterwards as Rita pours her scorn and hatred all over him.  But - my point is, the glove-factory tour is not nearly sufficiently interesting in itself.  It's a positioner, that's all; a positioning prop, you might say, existing for that purpose only. 

Perhaps I haven't quoted enough of the account of the tour to convince you of the very high price that the reader pays for that authorial positioning-point.  Perhaps I ought to quote more of the glove-making details...

Harlei:  Tell him no, Stid.

Stid:  No, no!  I believe you.

TO BE CONTINUED