The Magazine

Goodbye, Colossus

The last chapter of Philip Roth’s fiction

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By DANIEL ROSS GOODMAN
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Prior to 1969, Roth was regarded as an up-and-coming talent: He had written several different types of novels in several different voices, but he had yet to achieve a major breakthrough. With the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth found his voice. Portnoy’s intimate, confessional first-person style was almost more shocking than its substance. Pierpont compares its seemingly natural yet technically complex literary style to Marlon Brando’s superficially natural yet technically complex acting style. But a more apt artistic analogy might be to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps or Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. 

Finally out of debt and an unhappy marriage, Roth bought new clothes and a new East Side apartment, entered into a new relationship, and took a trip to Europe. “I was dizzy,” Roth is quoted as saying, “dizzy with success and freedom and money.” 

Unlike most of the other “provocative” novels of the era, Portnoy has not only survived but “shows signs of becoming a classic rather than a relic.” Yet, interestingly, and despite the enduring popularity and eminence that Portnoy continues to bestow upon its author, Roth is only mildly sanguine about what the novel has meant for his legacy. He also believes that its most important scene—a brief episode in which Alex Portnoy’s Uncle Hymie concocts a cruel ruse to separate Alex from the shiksa cheerleader he has fallen in love with—“was almost entirely overlooked and has nothing to do with masturbation.” That subject, in fact, is Portnoy’s great red herring; it is not a novel about onanism but about Roth’s idée fixe: fathers and mothers and sons, and Jewish identity.

Here, almost no detail of Roth’s life goes unnoticed; nor does Pierpont neglect to critique Roth’s lesser works: The Great American Novel (1973) is called a “headache-inducing farce” and a “giddy mess.” Pierpont also disabuses readers of some of the unfounded speculations that have adhered to Roth over the years. He was not the promiscuous “sexual madman” that many Portnoy readers had assumed him to be. Roth’s parents were not the caricatures that were Portnoy’s parents: His mother was far from stereotypical, and many of his novels convey a deep affection, and occasional outpouring of longing, for his parents. He did, though, have a difficult relationship with his father, and the need to escape from his father’s influence may partially account for the theme of self-creation that permeates his work.

Some would argue that Roth’s greatest novel is The Counterlife (1986, the book that “changed everything” for him, says Roth); others vouch for The Ghost Writer (1979, a “nearly perfect” work, in Pierpont’s opinion); still others choose American Pastoral (1997). For the record, I believe it is The Human Stain (2000). Of course, taste can be arbitrary, and critical opinions are ineluctably subjective. Yet for all those who deem American Pastoral Roth’s magnum opus, there are those (like me) who cannot connect to Merry and Swede Levov but who can connect to the characters—even, yes, Delphine—of The Human Stain. Detractors criticize Delphine as an unbelievable character who downgrades the novel’s literary merit, but their belief that she is a caricature is misbegotten. Real-life Delphines do exist, and the fact that Roth’s work encompasses multitudes—multitudes of opinions and multitudes of characters—is a continuing testament to his richness and diversity.

“The struggle with writing is over,” Roth told the New York Times last year, “and it gives me much strength.” His readers, meanwhile, can draw strength from the knowledge of the 31 compositions we continue to plumb. Our struggle to understand Philip Roth is just beginning. 

Daniel Ross Goodman is a writer and rabbinical student in New York.