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Crash Course

After a lifetime of avoiding Philip Roth’s books, a reader decides to see what all the fuss is about

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(Tablet Magazine)
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Until last month, I had never read anything by Philip Roth.

I’m not exactly sure how this happened. I’ve been a book nerd all my life, having grown up in a household full of crowded shelves, where the most appropriate Shabbat afternoon ritual was a trip to the library. My grandparents’ homes were full of books by the Major Jewish Writers—Bellow, Malamud, Singer, Roth—but my parents (though they both work in the Jewish world) were less interested in them.

As I got older and started writing about books professionally, Roth’s supremacy was unavoidable: He was always collecting awards, making everyone’s top-10 lists, serving as a reference point for critics talking about sex in literature, Jewish identity, misogyny, and New Jersey—all things I ostensibly cared about. His face regularly peered out from articles in newspapers and magazines, and his unsmiling face with its graying orbit of hair was familiar in a way that made me look past it and on to articles about new writers, whose books were so often positioned as rebuttals or complements to Roth’s legacy.

Not having read any Philip Roth felt alternately reprehensible and like a point of pride. Could I actually appreciate the landscape of contemporary fiction without him? On the other hand, we all have to build our own canons, and everyone’s education has its gaps, intentionally or not. (I knew I couldn’t be alone in this aspect of my under-education; there had to be plenty of well-read people who had their own reasons for having avoided him, too.) And I’ve always been skeptical whenever a author is hailed as the savior of literature, the Great American Novelist, or the embodiment of all we could hope for in a writer—whether that writer is Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith or Roberto Bolaño. Slowly, though, the fact that I didn’t know Roth’s work started to feel like an opportunity, a rare chance to approach something with relatively few preconceptions. Sure, I knew the basics: Roth was prolific, Jewish, aging, cranky, and venerated. But how did his books read? Would I like them?

With his 31st book, Nemesis, arriving this month, catching up on him completely was a daunting and not entirely pleasant prospect. And I didn’t really want to try. After all, if I wanted to fully understand Roth and his intimidating oeuvre, I would read all 31 of those books, along with critical biographies and anthologies and interviews that detailed the experience of reading him from just about every possible perspective, along with Claire Bloom’s scathing memoir of their relationship, Leaving a Doll’s House. I would read through hundreds of reviews and consult the experts at the Philip Roth Society. Instead, I just wanted to find out what it was like to persist on a Philip Roth diet for a few weeks, to see what it would feel like and if it would tell me anything about the way I read. I wanted to know if Roth was a writer it was even possible to get a general sense of, by dipping my toes into a few supposedly exemplary novels. So, I didn’t read 31 books. I read eight.

The way I chose those books was far from scientific, based on casual suggestions and availability as much as the specifics of Roth’s bibliography. His first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), was an obvious choice, and as the novel that made him famous (and both exalted and reviled), so was Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Someone told me they thought I’d like The Counterlife (1986), which seemed as good a tip as any, and I took home The Plot Against America (2004) both because I’d heard great things about it, and because it was already at the library instead of needing to be transferred in. I added Everyman (2006) to my pile for the same reason (and also because it was nice and slim when compared to most of the others, as well as relatively recent), and The Breast (1972) because, well, it’s about a man who turns into a giant boob. I knew I wanted to read American Pastoral (1997) because it won Roth the Pulitzer Prize, and Patrimony (1991) because I figured a memoir would offer a different angle on the author. Skipping around seemed legitimate, since I wasn’t trying to understand Roth’s evolution as a writer in any kind of comprehensive way, but to see what came of ploughing through a stack of his books in a concentrated amount of time.

Even if I wasn’t sure what I would actually find in these hundreds of pages, I knew what I was supposed to find. The promotional copy on many of the books was comically over the top: It seemed like each one was hailed as Roth’s greatest triumph, the one boasting his most indelible characters, the rawest emotion and deepest cultural relevance, and the author glared out from his photo as if daring anyone to contradict the superlatives. The aura of undisputed greatness triggered competing impulses in me: On one hand, it’s reassuring to read books that have already been vetted and generally agreed to be excellent. Another part of me, though, was annoyed that adoring Roth should be a foregone conclusion.

Portnoy’s Complaint, I realized just a few pages in, is a book you really need to immerse yourself in—it should be read in as few sittings as possible. With very few section breaks and a careening narrative (the whole thing is truly a relentless, exhausting complaint), the best strategy is to get into the groove of Alex Portnoy’s voice and let it pull you along. And with little to hang on to in the way of structure, it’s the characters and small stories that stick: Alex’s account of his young cousin’s suicide, his ambivalence about his girlfriend (whose serious sex appeal can’t make up for what he thinks of as her unrepentant stupidity), another cousin who almost married a goy and then died in the war, the horror movie (and indelible, odious archetype) that is his mother. Portnoy’s life is one long, sickening Jewish joke; Roth is trying so hard to repel and frustrate us that reading becomes a sort of test of will.

I knew the book by reputation, of course, but the repulsive, repressive Jewishness at its core was still extreme enough to be jarring. It’s certainly to Roth’s credit that the book still shocks more than 40 years after it was published, especially considering that at a certain point, its literary value became inseparable from its cultural cachet. That’s the challenge of reading a book that’s become shorthand to such an extent that The Daily Show jokingly called it “the Jewish manual” on the same night I finished it. Somehow, though, Portnoy’s Complaint still stands on its own.

After that, reading The Plot Against America was a relatively soothing experience, and something of a stylistic shock. The historically complex novel is impeccably structured and straightforwardly told and makes Portnoy look like a sheer cathartic exercise in comparison. On a basic level, The Plot Against America is just a great read: It’s accessible and vivid and suspenseful along with being a smart, sly history lesson. Reading Roth’s alternative history of the period preceding America’s intervention in World War II and knowing this is not what happened to American Jews in the 1940’s (but could have, given some choice unfortunate events) makes you want to know more about what actually did. Something about tracing the divergence of history and fiction fixes the facts in your head better than the usual accounting of them and made me think the book would be an inspired way to teach anyone from high-school students to forgetful adults about the period. In a different way, Goodbye, Columbus also felt to me like it belonged on a syllabus, so much so that I was hearing reading comprehension questions in my head as I was reading: things like, why does Neil care so much about the kid in the library? Why does he insist that Brenda get a diaphragm? What does the title actually suggest? The Breast was similarly ripe for essay questions. It also just works: It’s short, funny, and disturbing, with the blend of comedy and pathos that defines absurdity.

I found The Counterlife harder to get lost in, though I know that’s part of the point of the book’s structure—its multiple “lives” and shifts in perspective are meant to be disorienting, each chapter set in a new time and place that forces a reader to start from square one each time. That idea appeals to me, as does Roth’s fascination (very much on display in these pages) with calling his readers’ attention to the way a story is constructed. Still, there was just so much speechifying here, so much yelling about who was right and wrong, and the stakes never engaged me.

But I thought American Pastoral, which also had some meta qualities (and which I was similarly primed to think was genius), was staggeringly good. I loved how Roth built the saga of his main character, Swede Levov, out of the memories of his own alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, so that Zuckerman’s personal reflections drive nearly the whole first quarter of the book, before the character smoothly shifts his attention to imagining the Swede’s story. In these layers of authorship and invention, it’s not just Roth writing the book, but Zuckerman building it out of his own memories and feelings about the past, fiction upon fiction. There’s a lot going on here—high-school sports, family tensions, political violence, sex, cattle-breeding, embattled optimism, blackmail, urban ruin, the bizarrely fascinating specifics of how to manufacture women’s dress gloves—but the entire book is riveting and deeply sad, revolving around lost dreams and ideals and an underlying question of “why me?” that one might call biblical if it didn’t instead resonate as distinctly, terribly American. It’s that rare novel that kept me reading long past the point when I planned to go to bed, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

The day after I finished American Pastoral, I read Patrimony in three hours. Roth’s memoir of his elderly father’s decline was harrowing, lovely, and impossible to put down, its ending inevitable but the exact path to it heartbreakingly uncertain. Lucid and forlorn, he’s writing about the experience of memory here as much as he’s recounting specific ones, and they’re memories that actually belong to him, rather than ones he’s ascribing to his various fictional stand-ins. After reading so much that represented a meeting of his life and fiction, the Roth who is writing here seemed strikingly exposed. There’s nothing sexy or glorified, just shit smeared all over the walls and a son tasked with cleaning up the mess.

This felt like a reasonable, tidy way to conclude my reading spree. But Everyman—the first of Roth’s recent cycle of short novels—was still sitting at the top of the pile next to my coffee table, taunting me with its brevity.

For all its slimness, Everyman struck me as one of the bleakest books I’d ever read. It’s not merely depressing, but insistently, painfully grim. The book is a fairly concise chronicle of an aging man consumed by his mistakes, and it makes growing old sound like the hardest, loneliest, and most desperate situation a person can be in, to the point where it seems to have been written from a place of utter fear and despair. A few of the plot points were drawn directly from the pages of Patrimony: the severe heart trouble Roth recognized just in time to save his life, how he made a wrong turn on the way to visit his father and ended up at the crumbling cemetery where his mother was buried. In Patrimony, Roth writes that while that accidental detour offered him no comfort, it nonetheless left him satisfied because it felt “narratively right.” It was an apt way to describe the broader relationship between his life and work, and it was strangely gratifying to see so clearly how he’d translated that particular experience into fiction—15 years after he described it in a memoir.

Everyman left me so despondent that I worried it would color my feelings about Roth’s other books. But that might have happened had I finished with any of the others, too (albeit with a different aftertaste). And in the end, my Philip Roth binge made it hard for me to think of any one of his books as an individual work. Read together, they left behind a web of allusions and cross-references and authorial obsessions and outbursts and reflections that I’m happy to leave all tangled together in my head, letting the Nathan Zuckerman of American Pastoral touch base with his younger self from The Counterlife, having Swede Levov explain his familial knowledge of glove-making to the nameless protagonist of Everyman (who himself has some expertise in the fine jewelry trade), and letting Alex Portnoy and Goodbye, Columbus Neil Klugman swap stories—while all the female romantic interests get together to compare their own notes on this group of tortured Jewish men. Read on a bender like this, the connections between stories and characters and themes all but broadcast themselves, and I got a better sense of the man behind them than I would have had I read American Pastoral by itself, in installments the length of a subway ride.

We read, I think, to confirm things we assumed, as well as to be surprised by what we didn’t know. And timing matters. All of us remember books we’ve read at the wrong point in our lives—too soon, or too late—or in a moment that felt almost overwhelmingly perfect. There are books whose specifics drifted away soon after we finished the last page and others that we think about often, for reasons we don’t always understand. Maybe if I’d read different books by Roth, or the same ones in a different situation, my opinion of them would be less favorable. Maybe if I added just one more book to the stack, I would have gotten too sick of him to have anything positive to say.

Or maybe not. Discovering Philip Roth this way was totally unnatural, but it felt totally right. And, hey—now I’ve read Philip Roth.

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Roth is a gifted and visionary writer who deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. My parents’ generation despised him because he threatened them on several levels; read the important “The Conversion of the Jews” for more insight on that issue.

Reading this “true confession” immediately after Kirsch’s wonderfully perceptive and well-written review complimented no one, not the adolescent tone of the review nor the intelligence of Tablet readers.Hey, now I won’t read Ms Loeb.

Very interesting, intelligent, illuminating article — but I have to say, I never thought of “Portnoy’s Complaint” as a book that required an instruction manual. Maybe it’s because I’m coming at it from a completely non-Jewish perspective, but I thought it was like a stand-up routine of genius from beginning to end.

I did something similar to what you did a few years ago, read a bunch of Roth over several weeks, only I took the sequential route. It was when the first two volumes of the Library of America series came out. It was something to watch Roth’s maturity as an artist. He starts out brilliantly, stumbles, then rises.

The brilliant start: “Goodbye, Columbus.” Revelatory in any number of ways that were kind of shocking. I could see how these stories were incendiary and in a way they still are.

It’s a superb and rather brave book about what might be called “Jewish self-consciousness,” about the difficulty of trying to mainstream into WASP American life, about worrying if you are coming off as too Jewish or not Jewish enough (the struggle of the lawyer in “Eli the Fanatic,” who tries to hide his heritage so as not to create friction with his Christian employers, and winds up going the opposite direction.)

I also thought it took brass balls for Roth to say, in effect, yes, there are Jews who are just as acquisitive and materialistic (Brenda’s dad in the title story) and as exploitative (the soldier in “Defender of the Faith”) as any of their WASP neighbors.

I think he was writing at a time when for a Jew to create Jewish characters with negative characteristics was considered treachery; there were even Jewish leaders who suggested he was siding with the enemy.

To me, it opened a window.

The stumble: “Letting Go” and “When She Was Good” were apprentice novels. To read “Portnoy” right after them is to see a writer really discover a voice, maybe not his voice, but a voice that felt raw and genuine and real and was totally compelling and hilarious and dark.

Shame that Philip Roth, like Dante, Shakespeare and Joyce, will only receive the universal recognition he so richly deserves too late — in the here and now

terry g werntz says:

Really enjoyed this article. Thanks much.

Do I sense a bit of ambivalence in this review? The reviewer says a lot of nice things about Roth on the surface, but something about the praise seems perfunctory. It’s as if the reviewer “appreciates” Roth more than she actually felt any kind of deep connection with his work.

The last line kind of sums it up “And, hey—now I’ve read Philip Roth.” Sounds like it would be delivered with a shrug of the shoulders as an apology for what was otherwise a waste of time.

I’m not being critical of the piece. I think it actually identifies the way a lot of younger readers might feel.

Goodbye Columbus is dead on funny, mockery of gauche Jewish America. “Eli the Fanatic” demonstrates self loathing. “The Conversion of the Jews” reveals how ignorant and removed he is from authentic Jewish life, his supporters, too.

Shriber says:

Hi Rodney,

I wonder where all the book readers are posting these days?

As for Roth, I couldn’t get through, When She Was Good, the other books were good but I have trouble rereading most of them.

I did like his trilogy (American Pastoral and the subsequent two books) and my favorite is, Sabbath’s Theater.

P. scg., says:

To me. American Pastoral is one of the most wonderful books I ever read, and I am an avid reader in three languages. A tale of Love and Darkness by A. Oz is my next favourite.

David Fried says:

I agree that this “review” sounds like the product of a bright high school student–you like book A, you didn’t like book B, who cares? But your misunderstanding of what Roth is about is staggering. I’ll just say, however, that I am 60 now, and I read “Portnoy’s Complaint” when it first came out, in 1969. It was about the consciousness of an intelligent, repressed good boy struggling with the competing claims of nature, authenticity, sex,family, the wider American culture, and the estimable but stifling and neurotic lower-middle class Jewish society in which Roth grew up. It is, in other words, a ’60s masterpiece about the divide that opened up in American society trivialized by the title “generation gap.”

For me, at 18, raised in the same society half-a-generation later, it seemed absolutely true to my experience and as moving as it was funny. You refer to Portnoy’s mother as a “horror movie” and an “indelible, odious archetype.” Are you saying that Portnoy invented her as a projection of his misogyny? Well, you never met my mother. There are moments in the book that are indelible, all right, because they are straight out of my memories–“I’m going up the field to watch the men!”; Portnoy’s father going for a swim late on Friday evening down the shore, cautiously entering the water . . . For me it was Far Rockaway, 1955. . .

The Jewish readers of “Portnoy’s Complaint” fell on the two sides of the generational divide. At 18, and now, I found nothing offensive in the book–how could anyone dare to criticize Roth for something so honest, beautiful, and funny? And the “bad for the Jews” line seemed simply Palaeolithic.

It is striking, however, how hard the criticism hit Roth the Good Boy, and how much of his later work, as good as much of it is, is an apology and a corrective to the Portnoy satire. I’ve always wanted to say to him “Phil! Pay no attention to the Hadassah ladies!” But he can’t help it. He’s from the wrong side of the divide himself.

David Fried says:

Having run out of words above, I have to say one more thing in defense of Roth–and my mother. There is nothing odious about Portnoy’s mother. She can be obtuse, casually castrating, neurotic and narrow. She also loves Portnoy to pieces, is obsessively proud of him, and expects him, hot only to go far, but to realize her dreams and redeem her sacrifices. The world is full of women like this, and always has been. Check out D.H. Lawrence’s mother. Did you notice that Portnoy went to Columbia Law School and is professionally successful on the side of Right and the People? Just what his Ma wanted for him–which is of course part of the trouble.

Mrs. Portnoy is also hilarious–the tuna fish salad she serves to the black maid on a glass plate–“I’m not talking dreck, Alex! I’m talking Chicken of the Sea!” My mother was less racist than Mrs. Portnoy–it was the civil rights era–but those are the very cadences of her voice.

So if you think Portnoy’s Mom is a monster, I envy you. You were lucky in your mother, and you also don’t get out much.

Until today, I had never read antying in Tablet, but I will be back.

Should you ever feel the desire to read another work by Mr. Roth, please let me recommend The Ghost Writer. It may have been Roth at the peak of his powers. The story is a minor classic, one that I have read close to twenty times.

In fact, when people ask me to recommend a novel to introduce them to Roth, it is always The Ghost Writer.

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Crash Course

After a lifetime of avoiding Philip Roth’s books, a reader decides to see what all the fuss is about

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