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Tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy

[Editor’s Note: I’ve been reading Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer recently. The subtitle of the book, A guide for people who love books and those who want to write them, gives an indication about why it’s not a book one can read cover to cover without a break. After reading a few chapters, one begins to feel that perhaps Francine Prose has read every notable book ever written, perhaps multiple times. Several amazing excerpts in her collection and I bring you the second – a paragraph from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.]

The old intergenerational give-and-take of the country-that-used-to-be, when everyone knew his role and took the rules dead seriously, the acculturating back-and-forth that all of us here grew up with, the ritual postimmigrant struggle for success turning pathological in, of all places, the gentleman farmer’s castle of our superordinary Swede. A guy stacked like a deck of cards for things to unfold entirely differently. In no way prepared for what is going to hit him. How could he, with all his carefully calibrated goodness, have known that the stakes of living obediently were so high? Obedience is embraced to lower the stakes. 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. But who is set up for the impossible that is going to happen? Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering?  Nobody. The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy – that is every man’s tragedy.

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