FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

When He Was Good: Grappling With Philip Roth

One of my bookshelves is entirely filled with the works of Philip Roth. Although an avid reader of his work, there are a host of other writers whose work I love more. My Roth-heavy bookshelf is indicative of many things: a long and prodigious output, for one. His oeuvre was enormous. Much of it was very powerful. Much of it wasn’t.  The mountain of work he produced, almost by dint of sheer force, demanded critical attention. It forced its way onto your bookshelf, elbowing its way into a prominent position.

A flood of encomiums and criticism both have followed in the wake of Roth’s passing, which is entirely understandable, given his literary significance and controversy. To me, though, the biggest stumbling block when it comes to doling out the superlatives is its ultimate lack of controversy. There was an underlay of the outdated and out of touch that ran through his work.  Being topical is absolutely not synonymous with literary merit, but the fact that Roth no doubt considered his writing an important part of the zeitgeist opens him up to this sort of criticism.

I’ve never been able to summon the energy to read Portnoy’s Complaint—not because it’s so incendiary, but because it isn’t. Whether the authorial intent was satiric or not, I could never muster the least bit of interest in tales of horny Jewish boys, domineering Jewish mothers, shicksas, and masturbating into food. (How shocking! How transgressive!) The book, which came out in 1969, was probably ribald for anyone who’d never heard of R. Crumb. Likewise, I’m not sure who would find Roth’s older man–younger woman trope artistically engaging. It feels one step removed from dinner theater. It was as if, in the back of his mind, he was striving to shock Hadassah members or readers in suburbia.

Roth’s outdatedness was on display in 2004’s The Plot Against America, his politically prescient rejiggering of history in which Franklin Roosevelt loses the 1940 presidential election to nativist and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh. Politically prescient, but artistically clunky: “I had no literary models for reimagining the historical past,” Roth observed in an interview—blissfully unencumbered by the knowledge that the recasting of the historical past has a long, entrenched tradition in the science-fiction canon. (Philip K. Dick, anyone?)

But. At full force, his writing was simply extraordinary. The slender Goodbye, Columbus serves as a veritable précis on postwar intra-Jewish class conflict. Neil Klugman, from the less fortunate side of the Jewish street and barely removed from the world of pot roast, boiled potatoes, and “a bottle cream soda,” finds himself amid the wealthy, successful Patimkin family—Jews who have “made it,” but are themselves one step removed from that land of pot roast and boiled potatoes. Neil, wandering through the Patimkin digs, comes across a sturdy old refrigerator—a physical remnant of the Patimkins’ pre-affluent past and now reserved solely for the family’s supply of fresh fruit:

“No longer did it hold butter, eggs, herring in cream sauce, ginger ale, tuna fish salad…rather it was heaped with fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture…. There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet.” That is astonishing writing: a familial and historical metamorphosis in one paragraph—all conveyed via the opening of a refrigerator door.

Then there is the sprawling American Pastoral, the fictional chronicle of Swede Levov’s odyssey through postwar and 1960s America. Roth employs a literary sleight-of-hand so adroit it can almost be overlooked. American Pastoral is Nathan Zuckerman’s—Roth’s fictional alter ego—imagining the details of Swede Levov’s life. It is a monumental, yet masterfully subtle device, which adds a patina of slight unreality to the novel.

The Counterlife ranks as my favorite Roth, which again employs Nathan Zuckerman as its protagonist and sometimes narrator, utilizing contrasting narratives that in lesser authorial hands would be hackneyed. Philip Roth was always fearless in letting his fictional stand-ins come across as cretins (or it may be he had no choice in the matter), but The Counterlife displays an advanced psychological subtlety. Like Roth himself, Nathan Zuckerman–“The Jersey boy with the dirty mouth who writes the books Jews love to hate” as another Counterlife character describes him—is a writer whose scabrous books have rendered him a smutty apostate to much of the American Jewish world. To the wider gentile world, Zuckerman’s a chronicler of the Jewish grotesque. A large chunk of The Counterlife places Zuckerman in Israel, where one would imagine—politics aside—that a writer so unceasingly consumed with Jewishness would find somebare-bones affinity to what is, after all, a Jewish country. But Zuckerman exhibits a core indifference to Israel, to the point of not even being able to distinguish between Hebrew and Arabic. And almost as a finale, Zuckerman marries an English gentile and comes up against his own spouse’s unfamiliarity with Jews, as well as a bracing dose of British anti-Semitism. And so Nathan Zuckerman is always out of place, always in contrasting opposition. And always, hence, the perpetual center of attention.

What Philip Roth didn’t know filled volumes. What he did know filled fewer volumes, but those volumes were crucial. (One of the most intriguing things about Roth was his seemingly anomalous friendship with the late Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld, something that deserves a book of its own.) There was a lot of dross in Roth’s outsized canon. But amid the dross was also pure gold.

More articles by:

March 25, 2019
Dave Lindorff
The TSA’s Role as Journalist Harasser and Media ‘Watchdog’
Jonathan Cook
Three Lessons for the Left from the Mueller Inquiry
Tanya Golash-Boza – Michael Golash
Epifanio Camacho: a Militant Farmworker Brushed Out of History
Robert Fisk
Don’t Believe the Hype: Here’s Why ISIS Hasn’t Been Defeated
Jack Rasmus
The Capitulation of Jerome Powell and the Fed
Lawrence Davidson
Israel’s Moves to the Right
John Feffer
After Trump
James Ridgeway
Good Agent, Bad Agent: Robert Mueller and 9/11
Dean Baker
The Importance of Kicking Up: Changing Market Structures So the Rich Don’t Get All the Money
Lawrence Wittner
What Democratic Socialism Is and Is Not
Thomas Knapp
Suppressing Discussion Doesn’t Solve the Problem. It is the Problem.
Stephen Cooper
“I’m a Nine-Star General Now”: an Interview with Black Uhuru’s Duckie Simpson
Andrew Moss
Immigration and the Democratic Hopefuls
Weekend Edition
March 22, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Henry Giroux
The Ghost of Fascism in the Post-Truth Era
Gabriel Rockhill
Spectacular Violence as a Weapon of War Against the Yellow Vests
H. Bruce Franklin
Trump vs. McCain: an American Horror Story
Paul Street
A Pox on the Houses of Trump and McCain, Huxleyan Media, and the Myth of “The Vietnam War”
Andrew Levine
Why Not Impeach?
Bruce E. Levine
Right-Wing Psychiatry, Love-Me Liberals and the Anti-Authoritarian Left
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Darn That (American) Dream
Charles Pierson
Rick Perry, the Saudis and a Dangerous Nuclear Deal
Moshe Adler
American Workers Should Want to Transfer Technology to China
David Rosen
Trafficking or Commercial Sex? What Recent Exposés Reveal
Nick Pemberton
The Real Parallels Between Donald Trump and George Orwell
Binoy Kampmark
Reading Manifestos: Restricting Brenton Tarrant’s The Great Replacement
Brian Cloughley
NATO’s Expensive Anniversaries
Ron Jacobs
Donald Cox: Tale of a Panther
Joseph Grosso
New York’s Hudson Yards: The Revanchist City Lives On
REZA FIYOUZAT
Is It Really So Shocking?
Bob Lord
There’s Plenty of Wealth to Go Around, But It Doesn’t
John W. Whitehead
The Growing Epidemic of Cops Shooting Family Dogs
Jeff Cohen
Let’s Not Restore or Mythologize Obama 
Christy Rodgers
Achieving Escape Velocity
Monika Zgustova
The Masculinity of the Future
Jessicah Pierre
The Real College Admissions Scandal
Peter Mayo
US Higher Education Influence Takes a Different Turn
Martha Rosenberg
New Study Confirms That Eggs are a Stroke in a Shell
Ted Rall
The Greatest Projects I Never Mad
George Wuerthner
Saving the Big Wild: Why Aren’t More Conservationists Supporting NREPA?
Norman Solomon
Reinventing Beto: How a GOP Accessory Became a Top Democratic Contender for President
Ralph Nader
Greedy Boeing’s Avoidable Design and Software Time Bombs
Tracey L. Rogers
White Supremacy is a Global Threat
Nyla Ali Khan
Intersectionalities of Gender and Politics in Indian-Administered Kashmir
Karen J. Greenberg
Citizenship in the Age of Trump: Death by a Thousand Cuts
Jill Richardson
Getting It Right on What Stuff Costs
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail