A Philip Roth Sextet

One keeps coming back to Roth: there’s always more to explore. Here’s a review-batch of six novels from across his literary spectrum.

The Ghost Writer, Deception, Operation Shylock, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America.The Ghost Writer (1979)

I loved it so much I read it twice through; enamoured of the mechanics of literature. First for the story, then for the driving pleasure and aerodynamics. Of note is the way every narrative tangent-line is about writing/writers in some way: the fawning young over-imaginer, the starlet identity-thief, the validation of the spiritual father at the expense of the biological, the particularities of Jewish literary personalities in America (I was tempted to collate pieces of Bellow from the mosaic). And most importantly, the corrective realities behind the literary daydream (‘the religion of art’), especially for those who have to live with the artists. Which drama is pointedly crisp, contained and efficient.

I love the canny juxtaposition of Zuckerman’s love of light, airy ballet dancers with his earthy desire to pin them (and others besides) to the floor.

I love the confident association with literary predecessors and giants, with literary savvy (Zuckerman quotes boldly). The mix of youthful/brash imagination and solidifying confidence is just right. I keep thinking that Roth is precise in his wideness, which may sound a little non-sequiturial but I mean he can capture a wide gamut of narrative (character, anecdote/tangent, drama, pointed contrast and choice detail), at times with extreme, nearly conspiratorial brevity, especially as they relate to the becoming-writer or humour. Though there is an occasional tendency to lead/preach, everything rolls and slots in neatly, everything is sufficient. Which is the high water-mark of literature. This one also has one of his least ambivalent endings.

Quotable prose:

My guess was that it would take even the fiercest Hun the better part of a winter to cross the glacial waterfalls and wind-blasted woods of those mountain wilds before he was able to reach the open edge of Lonoff’s hayfields, rush the rear storm door of the house, crash through into the study, and, with spiked bludgeon wheeling high in the air above the little Olivetti, cry out in a roaring voice to the writer tapping out his twenty-seventh draft, “You much change your life!” And even he might lose heart and turn back to the bosom of his barbarian family should he approach those black Massachusetts hills on a night like this, with the cocktail hour at hand and yet another snowstorm arriving from Ultima Thule. (I wonder how Rilke would appreciate such reduction to barbarism, p27)

[On Betsy] …those elegant, charming tableaux she could achieve, even when engaged in something so aesthetically unpromising as, half asleep in the middle of the night, taking a lonely pee in my bathroom. (love that ‘unpromising’, p35)

Hope tried her luck with a self-effacing smile, but the wattage was awfully dim. (p41)

The charm [of Felix Abravanel] was like a moat so oceanic that you could not even see the great turreted and buttressed thing it had been dug to protect. You couldn’t even find the drawbridge… It was a head that the Japanese technicians, with their ingenuity for miniaturizing, might have designed, and then given over to the Jews to adorn with the rug-dealer’s thinning dark hair, the guarded appraising black eyes, and a tropical bird’s curving bill. A fully Semeticised little transistor on top, terrific clothes down below — and still the overall impression was of somebody’s stand-in. (p58-59, possible deliberate close skirting to racial stereotypes {he is projecting the 50s and mild naivety} to echo the young writer flirting with cliché)

“We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” (Henry James, p116)

Deception: A Novel (1990)

At last, a literary breeze. OK, literary, qualify that term. Well, it is strange (or rather, comforting) for all us pretend- wannabe- and manqué-writers that a book comprising of little more than notes and short vignettes can get published as a novel/story. Having a name helps, true. Having great dialogue helps too. Riding on the implication of a lot of sex, even better. Though ultimately this ain’t a novel in the Balzac sense (ah, now there’s a novelist), it’s still a lot of fun to read, a breezy read easily taken in a single sitting (say, of an evening one’s forgotten the house keys and the lady is several hours away).

As a transition work, Deception plays and enrages the idea of unreliable narrator as he morphs through the mirrors of fiction. Deception of the lover’s husbands or deception of the reader’s interpretation, like. It consciously sits between some of Roth’s major novels so it’s got great bibliographical/contextual value and biographer-baiting; but for us wannabes it’s far more interesting to tune into the writer’s mind at work: to intuit his literary sensibility and the awareness of what will work as drama on the page; the traps and incongruities of a life lead literarily, or noted directly; and the strange fluidity between private and real experience and the written imaginative representation. To hear Roth try things out and ask for suggestions. Above all, to hear Roth the listener — he is an amazing listener and subtle question-leader — and this is of course central to his writerly sensibility. How many times does Zuckerman listen to heroes reciting their tale. The artifice then, with all these little pre- and post-coital whisperings and phone calls and private exhalations, is that we’re listening to listening. Again, the value is primarily of benefit to writers. Not because Roth reveals himself clearly at all, but because he gives so much of his technique away (if you know how to read for it).

I also realised how acutely characterised his dialogues can be — not just in the broken English of foreigners but in his subtle modulation of syntax that differentiates the Brits from the Yanks, for example. Deception is a series of exercises in brevity, easy pieces of dialogue, and another study on the pace and terrain of affairs. Though it won’t quite give you the sang-froid of the average Frenchie in dealing with wives and mistresses, it’s full of lessons.

Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)

A strange novel, almost a failure, Shylock is Roth in maximum literary-game-playing mode. The game is mostly played at serious novel-writing’s expense, a little at Roth’s and ultimately the reader’s expense. As satire, or post-modern jesterism, Roth manages to pass off some serious and cutting invective (particularly against Israel’s post-Holocaust morality and the Palestinian occupation), as well as loading up on literary-double humour and sly digs at himself. Particularly when he limns the Big Woman of the Book (Jinx/Wanda Jane) — “She might, in another life, have been a fecund wet nurse from the Polish hinterlands” — it’s horsy fun as well as being a Roth pisstake.

Split roughly, the first two thirds of the book are in the reality-game mode. The final act is the serious novelist trying to draw in the funny strings and return to seriousness again. Roth the normal novelist returns, still slightly playful, but at least more attuned to regular detail and colour. Especially with the peculiarities of the American Jewry. But it just falls apart – too many fakes spoil the reader’s trust. If the novel’s deep theme is reality, or whatever reality and truth can be distorted through fiction, or even Roth and the Real Roth, then the whole fake/real omission of the Mossad mission and all the layers of political use/abuse intrigue become dissatisfied dead-ends. The last third doesn’t service the literary game-play of the brilliant Double theme started before — it even announces its closure as a hypothetical closure. It doesn’t cross well from mock-serious literature to deadly-serious politics, but leaves huge hulking bridges of prose — maybe a sign of the whole political mess of Palestine.

The humour is not as screeching/hysterical as Portnoy, but it does leave the novel in a lumpy state by its deflated-serious end. Considering much of it is set within the Israeli situation (does Roth feel hysterically absurd there?), there’s more on Jewishness in this book than probably any of his others, and this also throws the balance out.

Somehow I get the feeling that Latin American writers handle this territory (if not that territory) much better.

I Married a Communist (1998)

A testament to betrayal set in the treacherous period of McCarthyist America. The crush and crumple of another vivid, rangy athletic male and his passionate particularity. A brilliant establishment of a political era, but in equally tall and rangy prose — though lacking the verve and raciness of Sabbath’s Theatre, that hysterical desire machine. I guess this is part and parcel with a novel told in recollection whilst building a double, triple, then quadruple character portrait. Roth handles it effortlessly of course, but the fare is drier (less sexy) than his contemporaneous books.

The US fetish for righteous blamelessness and betrayal is worked up though no one really knew what Communism was; the undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Red-baiting; the destructive tides enveloping the righteous socialists, usually to further some personal or petty cause. The pleasure of betrayal. The purifying acid and abrasion of the purely literary Glucksman. The rather brilliant rundown of the Nixon funeral (p278) fittingly closing the Tricky portrait elsewhere; the hilarious account of getting laid for the first time at an Abbott & Costello drive-in movie, the windows steamed and the engine flooded.

Memorable quotes of prose:

… nothing so audaciously creative in even the most ordinary as the workings of revenge. And nothing so ruthlessly creative in even the most refined as the workings of betrayal. (p184).

The entire page of 223 (Politics is the great generaliser… and literature the great particulariser… in an antagonistic relationship [to each other] is full of exemplary advice.

I think of the McCarthy era as inaugurating the postwar triumph of gossip as the unifying credo of the world’s oldest democratic republic. In Gossip We Trust. Gossip as gospel, the national faith… the American unthinking. (p284, cf The Human Stain)

And of course there’s Roth’s sustained work of memory, painting a complex background to go some way in explaining the world we inherit and inhabit today.

The Human Stain (2000)

Roth excels at splicing comedy and rage. An especially sexual splicing — which from the start had me in mind of Sabbath’s Theatre. But then again he’s also one of the finest channelers of articulate rage operating in fiction today. And when he’s not writing full comedy, also one of the sharpest craftsmen of psychological realism. A serious one. A rare technician of prose joining pain and surprise, the ruthless and the defenceless, the sincere and the performed.

The power of human chaos is entered through the minds and language of characters, with staggering fullness. To reveal all the self-preservations of ego, the smarts of pain and broken love, the shards of identity — in the lawyer, Faunia, Delphine Roux, Farley — whose nightmare is rendered with amazing justification and Hemingway jolts of prose.

I loved the youth and energy of the boxing-related chapters (tangential topic: the love of writers for boxing), how the sport ignites Coleman’s dormant hate of race/colour consciousness. The cutting portrait of pride-afflicted Delphine with her Continental vocab and polished complexities, the complex phoney.

She seemed to herself to have subverted herself in the altogether admirable effort to make herself” (p272) in contrast to Coleman. Was her undoing a little too blunt? I loved the early (narrative-late) seed of appropriateness/correctness in the home visit with Steena, the struggle for formality. I love Roth’s concern with genealogy and full family backgrounding — not so much a Jewish concern as a biblical mode — how shall we tell our story: in the language of our forefathers etc. I especially like — now that I know how to look for them — Roth’s little parallels of character-thought and writing method, his particular focus and devotion to the art: “The task, nothing but the task. At one with the task. Nothing else allowed in.” (p121) And of always using characters to express your deepest criticisms of society: “…their shallowness they call lovingness, and the ruthlessness is camouflaged as lost self esteem. The hyperdramatization of the pettiest emotions.” (p147) “All that we don’t know is astonishing.” (p209) “The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?” (p242)

And of course there’s Roth the prosemeister, from the super first page to the sustained ambivalent closure of the ending. “To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving — and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands.” (p342). The book is littered with simple-word/complex-idea expressions. “He didn’t so much laugh aloud as nibble at the bait of an out-loud laugh, work up to and around the laugh without quite sinking his teeth in. Close to the hook of dangerous merriment, but not close enough to swallow it.” (p357).

It’s not the easiest on the eyes, but certainly deeply rewarding to read — a pleasure that mixes cerebrality with visceral urge. The book does sag in the middle, and occasionally he lays on too many questions, labouring the reader with “By the time I met him, was the secret merely the tincture barely tinting the coloration of the man’s total being or was the totality of his being nothing but a tincture in the shoreless sea of a lifelong secret?” Almost purple, that. Brave, but purplish.

Still, a great prose picture of America. A great American novel.

The Plot Against America (2004)

Firstly, this is Roth in political-novel mode, meaning there’s barely a whiff or issue of sex here; and meaning also that we miss one of Roth’s major field-talents (I’ve had to balance my reading of The Plot with Millet’s Sexual Life of Catherine M.). This is purely Roth the Literary Monk; one of the quietly active custodians of the novel form, working steadily away in his personal cell of the soul, his small but essential window on the world. Everyone’s been banging away in reviews about the Lindbergh scenario’s parallel with the George Milhous Bush administration, even though that’s doing Lindy a slight disservice. Everyone wants this novel to represent our current politics (or, the Politics Against America) which of course skews the broad valence and weight of the novel unfairly; as though we need further cultural affirmation of what is already bleedingly apparent — the incompetent idiocy and smallness of the Bush junta — or indicative of some latent guilt and conscience-issues regarding his reign. This book, although small in terms of rage and scope, is still larger than Bush. will ever be. That is hope enough.

The subject of much of American politics is contained in the nutshell ‘We the People’ — and Roth aims in the same direction. He plays beautifully on the American faith in proffered beliefs and ideals; in the ability of Americans to believe their own propaganda and myths, and hence the US system of bamboozlement that feeds it — not so much through direct doublespeak but political sophistry and duplicity. Perfidy, false patriotic piety, dissembling cant and overt misrepresentation (all things in line with the Bush junta). To exploit traits or characteristics (in this case Jewish temperament, persecution complex, congregation etc) as the defining cause of violence against them; to inflame prejudice whilst actually serving an extremist agenda. That is, explicit self-propagandising — an American political specialty. Here, the asserted right or privilege to speak for We the People with finality and racial superiority — and hence Roth’s emphasis on US citizenship and pride over racial distinctions and the politics thereof. His family always considers itself American first, Jewish later. And hence the classical-novel mode of politics entering and poisoning the family as pseudo-symbolic of the country at large, poisoning itself.

The point of the novel methinks is not to wilfully parallel the Bush junta and its own particular cult of fear and propaganda, but to show how easily and close the US of the early 40s came (by fictive extension) to fascism and institutional anti-Semitism. This is one of the disturbing by-products of the corrective notes at the end, especially regarding Wheeler, Ford etc. The seeds were all there but the mélange of events grew a different fruit. This narrative force of ‘what if’ is married to the growth of fear in a single Jewish family; and by the child’s entrance into maturity through confronting and absorbing the essential unpredictability of modern life. The valence and cohesive relevance of family (gained by increased awareness) in the face of growing chaos, violence, paranoia. Hence, it’s a cautionary tale.

But as always with Roth, all is achieved by a rich panoply of characters — the focus of centrality shifts subtly from Sandy, Alvin, the father and then to the mother, with all the minor characters in between and the political players in the contextual-mingled background. The eager energy of the father always contrasted with the eager gullibility of Americans adopting fascist sympathy. The fall-ins and fallouts with the government; the eager betrayal of his people by Bengelsdorf; the power (and guilt) of political bling and nearness to myth (the white god descending from the skies in his plane/chariot is a pure Hitlerian fantasy (contrasted in turn with the deliberate veracity-ambiguity of the Nazi causality in the plot resolution)).

One of the finest achievements of the novel is the blend of child’s POV with fully adult prose finesse. Roth never descends to childlike babble and prattle — the prose remains fully intelligent yet encased within a child’s world and concern. I didn’t realise how effective this was until many pages in. It’s the most sustained trope of the book — and a writer’s difficulty executed effortlessly. Sterling adult prose told honestly, personally.

I like the idea of Philip Roth as Literary Monk, because it provides a gold-standard model for serious literati in these seriously warped times. A model of ageing defiantly, in truth to one’s cause (the novel) and with consistent grace (say over his previous four novels). Roth doesn’t descend (if that’s the right phrase) to op-ed forays of journalistic reactionism or smarmy Jeremiads, yet neither is he aloof enough to completely lose relevance or cease engaging artistically with the times at hand. As far as longevity goes, Roth is quietly assuring his own greatness over flies like Bush by presenting the human, personal and above all the particular view of innocence matured (another myth strongly interred in the US mind) as a frame for political and social awareness. Roth the Writer should be the one who comes to mind when we think of Representative Americans.

As always, on the level of the prose (and in addition to his supreme ease with the novel medium), I particularly like Roth because you can feel the mechanics of literature connect and mesh with the broader society that spawns it, even down to its deep conscience. He’s becoming more and more a Newark man as he’s becoming a greater American.

Key quotes in prose:

A new life began for me. I’d watched my father fall apart, and I would never return to the same childhood… the father… [was] crying like both a baby abandoned and a man being tortured — because he was powerless to stop the unforeseen. And as Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything… The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic. (p113-114)

…every day I ask myself the same question: how can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination. (p196)

What it came down to for the child who was watching her [his mother] being battered about by the most anguishing confusion (and who was himself quaking with fear) was the discovery that one could do nothing right without also doing something wrong, so wrong, in fact, that especially where chaos reigned and everything was at stake, one might be better off to wait and do nothing — except that to do nothing was also to do something… in such circumstances to do nothing was to do quite a lot — and that even for the mother who preformed each day in methodical opposition to life’s unruly flux, there was no system for managing so sinister a mess. (p340-341)

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor.

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