The Roth Quest
Searching for God in a world of evil.
Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By SAUL ROSENBERG
Polio patient in an iron lung, 1945
Bettmann / CORBIS
Philip Roth is perhaps the most celebrated of living American writers, the recipient of our most prestigious awards. It says something good about America that this is true of a Jewish writer who has written almost exclusively about Jews for 50 years, whether to contumely or praise.
For decades now, however, it has been almost all praise: far too much, really. For Roth’s greatest contribution—the sheer verve and energy of the often vulgar, always fluent, sometimes astonishingly funny, and always distinctly Jewish narrative voice he created to investigate Jewish life in America—is far behind him. To cite only the most scabrous carrier of that voice, Alexander Portnoy: “Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass—I happen also to be a human being!” Anyone who can get past being offended will see that this is funny, alive, and a pretty sharp summary of Roth’s theme through dozens of books: the struggle of his Jewish characters (and, it would appear, their author) to lead lives even fractionally independent of the Jews’ overwhelming history.
This was Roth’s voice, and his alone. To it, in his best work, he married a mastery of complex structure and the extraordinarily rare ability to play the postmodern game. To draw the reader into the traditional Coleridgean suspension of disbelief, and then promptly to disavow the whole thing as in one way or another “made up,” as if it weren’t all made up in the first place. To set off anew, the once-gulled reader again delightedly dragged along by the sheer creative “let there be” of Roth’s prose. And then to do it once more. At the apex of his powers, Roth could play with the novel’s fictional status as brilliantly as Nabokov in Pale Fire or Vargas Llosa in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.
But if Roth’s work has been marked by highlights such as Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, and The Counterlife, there have been many low points. Letting Go and When She Was Good, early detours away from his quintessential subject, the Jews of his boyhood Newark, are mixed at best. The three novels that followed Portnoy—Our Gang, The Breast, and The Great American Novel—are failures. Of the many novels from My Life as a Man to Operation Shylock—what we might call Roth’s two postmodern decades—none but The Ghost Writer and The Counterlife truly repays a second reading. It is true that Sabbath’s Theater and particularly American Pastoral—extravagantly praised books—contain long passages of beautiful writing and profundities that may well be connected to Roth’s “discovery” that the counterculture he had celebrated, and of which he was both champion and harbinger, was an unmitigated tragedy. The Human Stain also contains passages of great beauty as well as powerful ideas provocatively treated. But the books of the last decade mark a distinct falling off in both structural mastery and energy of prose.
Nemesis, plain of style and plainer of structure, offers no change of direction. The plain style works best when the material is truly explosive throughout. This is hard to do in a novel, even a short one. One thinks, rather, of the even prose in which Jonathan Swift’s “projector” discusses his eight-page plan for selling Irish babies for their meat and skin, and so boosting the Irish economy. It is the distance between the serene tone and its appalling subject that has earned A Modest Proposal its place as the greatest satire in the English language. There is, in fact, a literary bomb that goes off late in Nemesis, and powerfully so. But by the time it comes, we have waited too long, and been too little entertained.
It is worth noting that James and Faulkner, the great American artists of the endlessly unexploded ordnance (and, I think, among the few American writers Roth would acknowledge as his masters), offer their readers remarkable passages on almost every page. Some passages we read at full jaw-drop, as it were, while we wait for Caspar Goodwood to kiss Isabel Archer, or to discover why Henry Sutpen killed Charles Bon. In Nemesis, Roth actually manages the opposite of James and Faulkner: Where, by patience and cunning elaboration, they make the merely shocking utterly shattering, Roth makes the truly shattering actually bearable, excepting only the surprise at the end.
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