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September 25, 2007

The Joy and the Pain of Philip Roth

Philip Roth is one of those great American writers with whom I've always had a good deal of difficulty. And his most recent book is just a continuation of that difficulty. The question is more whether the difficulty is mine or if it is simply Mr. Roth's constitution.

However, I do want to raise a major point contra the current publishing mindset. The problem is exemplified in this passage:

from Exit Ghost
Philip Roth

I know it was on June 30 because that's the day that the female snapping turtles in my part of New England make their annual trek out from their watery habitat to find an open sandy spot to dig a next for their eggs. These are strong, slow-moving creatures, large turtles with sawtooth armored shells a foot or more in diameter and long, heavily scaled tails. The appear in abundance at the south end of Athena, troops of them crossing the two-lane macadam road that leads into town. Drivers will patiently wait for minutes on end so as not to hit them as they emerge from the deep woods whose marshes and ponds they inhabit, and it is the annual custom of many local residents like me not merely to stop but to pull over and step out onto the shoulder of the road to watch the parade of these rarely seen amphibians, lumbering forward inch by inch on the powerful foreshortened, scaly legs that end in prehistoric-looking reptilian claws.

There is amidst the lyrical and fascinating prose a blunder of enormous proportions, amplified by the fact that a modifier in the same sentence hints at the real relationships of turtles within the animal kingdom. Why is it that some editor allowed this to pass? For anyone even remotely acquainted with taxonomy, the mistake is jarring and annoying. Mr. Roth may have been trying to be poetic, or trying to enlarge the use of the word "amphibian" to encompass a larger sense of the "lifestyle" rather than the taxonomic level; however, as it isn't germane to the point of either the passage or the novel, the wise editor should have simply brought Mr. Roth up short and pointed out how very disorienting and alienating such an attempt is, particularly isolated in a single passage as it is. I suspect that it was merely a slip of the pen, and one that a useful editor ought to have made an effort to see fixed.

Another facet of Mr. Roth's writing that often disengages me is his insistence that the worth of a man is judged primarily, if not solely, by the correct and frequent functioning of those anatomical parts that define his maleness. This has been a theme from the earliest works, and it pervades much of Mr. Roth's writing. It is entirely possible that I have not completely understood what point Mr. Roth has been trying to make with it, if so, that is my failing. However, the obsessiveness of that theme in this novel has not made for enjoyable reading for me.

However, even in and among the ruminations on body parts that no longer work the way they once did, we occasionally find something lovely, such as this:

I simply asked him to tell me about her; what I'd gotten was a speech appropriate to the dedication of some grand edifice. There was nothing strange about such a staunchly tender performance--men who fall madly in love can make Xanadu of Buffalo it that's where their beloved was raised--and yet the ardor for Jamie and Jamie's Texas girlhood was so undisguised that it was as though he were telling me about somebody he had dreamed up in jail. Or about the Jamie I had dreamed up in jail. It was as it should be in a masterpiece of male devotion: his veneration for his wife was his strongest tie to life.

This is gorgeous, even if spoken ironically, and with a post-modern cynicism most unappealing (however, I find it difficult to read the passage in that light). And from it you can read the obsession of the present work. Mr. Zuckerman is in lust with Jamie. And lust is the closest that any character in a normal Roth novel seems capable of coming to love--the only defined thing about Nathan Zuckerman is his desire that comes without any strong emotional underpinning. And so, we have the Philip Roth novel. Now, perhaps Mr. Roth's point is to satirize these attitudes. But there is a sameness and a plodding dullness surrounding that sameness that suggest that the attitude is truly the authors and not a conceit or a feint. Again, that may be a cursory misreading--if so, I'm not the only one who is inclined to such misreadings.

Finally, the political discussions in the book are a nauseating concoction of intolerant leftist political ideation. In this book they are so extreme and so blatant, that for the first time I have wondered if Roth might not be poking fun at the intolerance of the oh so tolerant portion of our society. (Interestingly, I agree with some of the political assessment in the book, I just find them too narrowly focused. Everything said about Mr. Bush and his regime could be applied, one long tarbrush to most of the regimes post Roosevelt I. And in the diatribe painting all of this, we pass lovingly over the administrations of the nearly saintly Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. I, like Zuckerman in the book, but for reasons quite different, am nearly completely uninterested in politics as a whole. I think I saw a great deal too much in the time I spent with my mother on Capitol Hill. Just a clue for you all--there are no Mr. Smith's in that gaggle--at least there weren't--I shouldn't exclude the possibility that some have showed up in the interim--but my impression is that things have rather gone downhill since my heyday.

So, while Mr. Roth's prose is elegant at times and interesting, his obsessions rapidly become tedious, and of the remaining "great figures" of recent American writing, he is one whose work is most colored by the person he is. It seems endlessly and repetitively autobiographical, and obsessed with what it means to be a man. Possibly obsessed because his characters really have no idea whatsoever. Nevertheless, there are things that are lovely, thoughts that are worthwhile, strands that are worth pursuing and occasionally prose that is sparkling, bright, and exemplary of very fine writing.

Posted by Steven Riddle at September 25, 2007 7:01 AM

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Several years ago, a co-worker who knew I was unacquainted with Roth's oeuvre insisted that I read the first few pages of Portnoy's Complaint. What a masterpiece of hilarity! he insisted. So funny!

So I did. And the first few pages left me absolutely cold on an intellectual level, as well as exacerbating my morning sickness on a physical level. I don't really find masturbation as fascinating as Roth, and so I've avoided his company ever since. Perhaps this is a mistake, but I do hate digging through pages of penis-worship to mine the occasional literary gem.

Posted by: mrsdarwin at September 25, 2007 8:14 PM

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