Reading Philip Roth

The following are a series of short reviews/commentaries I wrote after reading various Philip Roth novels. I’ll come back to update and revise the page from time to time. Just note that each short commentary was written directly after reading the novel, and that–while I’ve arranged them in order by date of publication–I wasn’t always so careful about the order in which I read. When She Was Good, in fact, was read long after I finished Everyman.

When She Was Good


I get the feeling that Philip Roth didn’t particularly enjoy writing When She Was Good. The book feels tortured, is occasionally an agonizing read; there are stretches where it seems like every character is shouting at one another, each sentence for five pages ending in an exclamation point. It’s like watching a 1940s-era Jerry Springer episode, characters in loveless relationships who all behave badly.

I also get the feeling that Roth hated his female protagonist, which is not a feeling with which a reader should be left. No matter how despicable the character, we should always feel as if the author is trying to understand this person, trying to get past their flaws, trying to see why they act the way they do. By the time that Lucy–the female protagonist–dies at the very end of the novel, though, we get the sense that Roth couldn’t wait to kill her off. And after you finish reading, you start to understand why Roth has not written a female protagonist since; the men appeared as victims in When She Was Good, the women as evil control freaks. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Roth knew that this was the overall outcome of his efforts…

While I didn’t enjoy this novel (and I really only finished it because I’m trying to conquer the full Roth canon), it is interesting to note some of the strange structural choices that Roth utilizes here: the nonlinear/ achronological structure, the shifting of point-of-view, the secrets kept during one perspective of an incident that are later revealed in a different perspective of the same incident. It feels like a test run for The Human Stain, an unpolished early attempt that he would later remember and improve upon (with far different characters and a far different plot). There were even some images that reminded me of John Irving’s The World According to Garp: the vigor and energy and inevitability with which Roth described Lucy’s death felt very much like Irving’s slow and painful description of the car accident that claimed one child’s life, another’s eye, and a large portion of a graduate student’s penis. Maybe there are few similarities between the two scenes; maybe I’m imagining it; but I guarantee Philip Roth was overjoyed when he read that scene in “Garp.”

Everyman


Philip Roth’s Everyman reads like an extended personal essay on the male preoccupation with mortality and the failings of his own body. It’s an interesting work, made effective by its brevity and its unwavering dedication to the subject at hand: like a personal essay, it is a meditation on a single subject, and it does not break off into sub-plots, unnecessary character development, etc.

The prose quality was, as is always the case with Roth, hypnotic and deliciously pretentious. And the characters were extremely well-defined, especially considering the tight confines of the novel. But the idea of creating an anonymous “everyman” at the story’s center, I’ll be the first to say, is a bit annoying; the book’s jacket tells us that this is a “candidly intimate yet universal story,” but I don’t think “universal” stories are ever as effective as personal stories. The power is in the particular, as they say: the more specific the character, the more we care. Sorry, this was one device (the everyman) that even Roth could not pull off.

A fascinating novel, though, and a quick read. Years from now, we won’t remember Everyman as one of Roth’s classics, but for now–while we’re approaching (unfortunately) the waning years of his career and life–it’s a must read.

The Ghost Writer

Spend a few nights with a Philip Roth book, soak it in, and you will come away with strange new thoughts about writing and reading. Here, Roth tackles the difficult subject of the artist releasing his art upon the world: what if readers and viewers make of it something different than we intended? The dream-like passages about Anne Frank’s disgust (and then delight) with her own diary’s reception are remarkable.

And as with any Roth book, also, you can read this and marvel at the prose quality. How the man consistently creates such rich and distinct voices in his books (here, the narrator seeks erudition, and Lonoff, the other central character, has an entirely different erudite voice, one borne of passionless adherence to the routine of producing art) is beyond me.

This is a short book, but to make it a “quick read” is to do it a disservice. Read it in four parts, four sittings, and really take your time with it. “Soak it in,” as I said, because there’s a lot of great stuff here.

Zuckerman Unbound

Another insightful meditation on art and the artist from Philip Roth. Here, we try to learn how success affects novelist Zuckerman, and to what extent he’s willing to embrace the world around him, now that the world around him knows who he is.

This book wasn’t quite as intimate and focused as The Ghost Writer, perhaps because Roth made the choice to pan out and use a third-person voice (which I actually found a bit disorienting for awhile), but it’s still essential reading. Probably doesn’t stand on its own, but as part of the Zuckerman series, it is a brilliant chapter.

The Anatomy Lesson

Once again, Roth seamlessly integrates metaphor into his character’s psychological state…it’s absolutely amazing. The “affliction” that Zuckerman suffers comes to represent the world around him, as well as the turmoil inside him for having wronged his family. Faced with an ongoing pain, Zuckerman decides to forsake his career as a writer (where he is also feeling pain, and questioning the value of the profession) to go to medical school and become a doctor at age 50.

The metaphor of “pain” seeps into every facet of Zuckerman’s life, and the false solace of the Percodan matches the false solace of med school.

The great thing about Roth, though, is that even though these metaphors and themes all work together so well (and seem so heavy-handed when they are summarized in a few short paragraphs), the book feels natural, organic, in the same great way as the best books and stories about writers (Lorrie Moore’s “How To Be a Writer” comes to mind). Never once while reading did I even believe that this story wasn’t real, that these things weren’t happening to a flesh-and-blood mid-life crisis writer named Nathan Zuckerman.

This isn’t my favorite Roth or Zuckerman book, as I much prefer the erudite first-person novels like The Ghost Writer and The Human Stain, as opposed to the third-person novels…but it’s essential reading. Dense, lush writing, and very funny at times.

The Prague Orgy

I don’t generally read novellas because I don’t really get the point of what they’re trying to do and why the author couldn’t pick (a) the short story form, or (b) the novel form. But I had to read The Prague Orgy because it is part of Roth’s Zuckerman series. And while this wasn’t fantastic, I certainly understand why it had to be a novella…Zuckerman is too large a character to inhabit short stories, but this particular story was not large enough to deserve a novel.

For the first time since The Ghost Writer, Roth allows Zuckerman to tell his own story in first-person in The Prague Orgy. Strangely, though, the story is pulled from “Zuckerman’s journals.” The result is strange, surreal, and difficult to piece together until the last 15 pages or so.

When we do connect the pieces, though, it’s a strong effect. For the novella’s duration, Zuckerman has been questing through Czechoslovakia for the long-lost Yiddish manuscripts of a Nazi-slain Jew, a quest that (we conclude) is supposed to mirror the unending quest of the Jews for a true homeland. Once he has the manuscripts, how will he know they’re real? Now that the Jews have their homeland, will they ever truly have it?

Once again, Roth expertly weaves metaphor with circumstance and psychological state to deliver a work that works on many levels at once. How this guy keeps cranking out such rich work is beyond me.

The Counterlife

The Counterlife is perhaps Philip Roth’s strongest work, and perhaps his weakest. I’m still not entirely sure.

Roth’s strongest attributes seem to stand out first, though: he is the king of the unmanipulating plot twist. Here in The Counterlife, we read the first 3,000 words, and are completely turned around by the next ten words. It’s a magnificent shock that Roth delivers, and it doesn’t feel forced or contrived; instead, it feels the way that real-life shocks generally feel, whenever we suddenly learn of some new piece of information that completely changes everything we thought we knew.

And Roth does the same thing at least ten times throughout this novel, consistently kicking the stool out from underneath us, until the point where we love the abuse so much that we can’t wait for the next hit. The book, in fact, is built upon a simple premise: we invent identities for ourselves, and we invent identities for others; we are all living a real life, and a counterlife (it’s like the old Chris Rock joke, “When you first meet someone, you’re not meeting them. You’re meeting their representative.”). The book, then, builds us up to believe a character has a certain identity, then crushes us with an alternate identity. Each new “chapter” (there are five) then completely reinvents each new character, suggesting that the previous chapter was a lie, a fiction that novelist Nathan Zuckerman wrote about his mistress, or brother, to explain behaviors he didn’t understand. By the end, we’re unsure what was real, what was imagined, what was memoir, what was fiction. Simply put, the book is a head-trip, and an absolutely masterful look at the construction of identities in our lives. This is a book that you read, and if you’re a writer, you say, “There’s no way I could have pulled this off.”

On the other hand, this is also Roth’s look at the ethnic/national Jewish identity, and in this regard, it is not so successful. We have pages and pages and pages of conversations about what it means to be a Jew, and if it means anything to be a Jew, and if Israel means anything to Jews, and on and on, and at times, it feels enlightening and subversive and interesting, but other times, it feels overdone. After all, Roth touches on “what it means to be a Jew” in every one of his books. Does the subject need to be so exhaustive here, as well?

It’s the classic case, perhaps, of a single book trying to do too much. Roth is a genius, without a doubt, and while this was a difficult book (several of his books are), it is indeed challenging and rewarding, a hell of an accomplishment. But Roth could have made it leaner, tighter, and more efficient.

Deception

Perhaps Philip Roth’s most daring novel (which is really saying something), Deception reads like a giant “Fuck You” to traditional story structure. It is a book composed entirely of post-coital conversation, relying on the dialogue itself and deprived completely of dialogue tags or exposition. Risky? Very. Especially considering the protagonist is a man named Philip Roth, and the conversations are had with his mistresses.

I didn’t enjoy Deception, despite its interesting narrative strategy. I thought (like The Counter-Life) that there were a great many conversations throughout that I’d simply heard before in other Roth books. The elevated speech, the pretentiousness of the dialogue, starts to wear on you a little, also. You forgive a bit of it because you figure we’re dealing with hyper-realistic intellectuals…but then you just become annoyed with the dialogue’s overall perfection.

Like The Counter-Life, though, Deception redeems itself by its end. It offers the reader a remarkable turn in the last fifteen pages that calls into question everything we’ve read up until that point. We question what has been real, what has been made up by the protagonist, how many lies upon lies have been told, and in service of what? And in no way does it feel manipulative. We understand entirely why there might have been lies. I would also compare Deception to The Prague Orgy. Dull and seemingly pointless for 40-50 pages, then remarkably interesting for the final chapter. I’m glad I read it, because there is something rewarding to be had in every Roth book, but I wonder if this novel (like Prague Orgy and Everyman) would have simply been better served as a short story, and if Roth’s current aversion to short stories has prevented him from creating some classics of the form, and has made him turn out a couple forgettable and ill-conceived novels.

The Facts

Just when Roth’s fiction was starting to get a bit repetitive for me, I decided to read The Facts, the so-called novelist’s autobiography. Bracketed by letters from the fictional Nathan Zuckerman, Roth shares his childhood, his university years, and his early years as a writer and novelist; while it’s all very interesting and well-written, though, it is the Zuckerman intrusion that gives this autobiography an added dimension, calling into question all that Roth has told us, calling into question the very nature and purpose of autobiography. Zuckerman essentially asserts that this could as easily have been called “The Facts I Chose To Include, as Opposed to the Facts I Left Out.”

This isn’t a new idea, of course, but generally, writers speak about these things in short essays, or conference papers. Rarely do they write full autobiographies that actually make the argument. As always, Roth provides rich, dense prose throughout, and while he occasionally lapses into long passages about what it means to be a Jew (territory he seems always to cover, and territory that I feel like I’ve read a thousand times), The Facts is a fresh work that will remain relevant (I think) as long as memoirs and autobiographies are popular forms of literary expression.

Patrimony

A thousand student writers in a thousand Creative Writing programs have–upon taking their first Nonfiction course–drafted a memoir about a father dying, or a mother, or a grandparent, or a friend, or a cousin, or a family pet. In the post-grad world, this is referred to without amusement as “The Dead Grandmother Story,” and it is an absolutely dreaded genre because first-time authors generally don’t know how to evoke emotion, only how to tell us that they felt it, and they don’t yet know how to make the experience of death feel thematically fresh or relevant. This isn’t to say that teachers think the student’s experience is not significant, or that teachers make fun of or insult those students who attempt to write about these experiences; this is only to say that this type of memoir is tough to write well, and it is too-often attempted.

To those who have attempted to write a “Dead Grandmother Story,” or to those who have had to read far too many, Roth’s Patrimony indeed feels like one author’s lesson in how to craft this story well. Was I excited to read this? No. (Based solely on my experiences with having read too many poor entries in the genre). But Roth’s tale is rich and complex and poignant, helping the reader to feel the same sense of sadness and loss that Philip Roth himself felt.

How does he do it, then? If it’s a lesson for young writers, what can they take away from this book? Simple. This isn’t a “woe is me” story. This book doesn’t assume that readers haven’t also experienced death, sadness, loss…So Roth takes the following approach: his father has been strong his entire life, always capable, always powerful, but suddenly a brain tumor takes control of the man’s life, reducing him without mercy to an old, old man far different than the father Philip knew for so long. Suddenly, Philip is forced to play the role of father, and is forced to watch the painful process of this once-strong man deteriorate before his very eyes. Philip must make the same life/death decisions that his father once made for the family. How does a son cope with this role reversal, with this strain? And (of course) how does a curious writer struggle with a subject that feels off-limits?

As always, Roth’s book is well-written, and as with many of his 1980s works, it feels good but not great. The great works occurred in the 1960s and in the 1990s (with a few others–Ghost Writer, Plot Against America–scattered here and there). This is an accomplished work, and interesting, but like The Facts, Roth’s other attempt at memoir, much of its interest stems from our fascination with Roth as a writer, and the reputation he’s built from his collective canon.

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