Philip Roth Happily Pissed a Lot of People Off
The late, polarizing novelist set a high bar for everyone else—and himself—to violently crash into.
I was on the phone with my girlfriend when the news broke that Philip Roth had died. She was talking about the Grand Canyon—we were planning to visit, but would it be too crowded? How grand is the Grand Canyon? I glanced at my computer screen and saw the bold-faced banner the Times uses when something terrible happens or Donald Trump says anything. I interrupted her: Roth was dead. We were quiet for a few seconds.
"Man, I really wanted him to read my book," I said finally.
"Yeah, mine, too," she said. She’d written, among many other things, a poem called "My Life as a Man" that incorporated lines from his novel of that name. "Maybe he read your galley?"
"Yeah," I said. "I guess it was probably the last thing he read."
The awfulness of this—of thinking it, of saying it out loud, of imagining Roth wasting even seconds of the last months of his life on that bullshit—set us off. God help us, we laughed. Poor Roth. We’d spent so much time reading and talking about him that our natural defense against grief was a kind of Muzak cover version of his pitch-perfect gallows humor. He was the patron saint of literary irresponsibility—which, not coincidentally, often tipped over into toxicity—insisting on the artistic necessity of transforming one’s worst impulses into narrative. So. There we were.
It’s hard not to take the loss of Philip Roth personally. As was the case for so many of my peers and betters, his work had a profound effect on me as a reader and a fiction writer. Roth, at 85, was the same age as my mother’s mother, who also died this year. The stories she told of her semi-assimilated Armenian family making an American life for themselves in West Philadelphia in the years before, during, and after World War II echoed in my head as I read Roth’s novels about his Jewish family doing the same in Newark during roughly the same time. Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, I saw myself—never a good idea—in Roth’s young protagonists, simultaneously serious-minded and aching to destroy the placid surfaces and predictable expectations of nice schools and nice families. His weaponization of humor as the means of escape from a conventional life isn’t his achievement alone, obviously, but very few writers have been so funny on the page before or since, especially not in that unhinged, stand-up comedy in hell kind of way.
Roth set a high bar for everyone else—and himself—to violently crash into.
His books, with their multiplying hall of mirrors approach to autobiography, create the cumulative illusion that one has spent years in Roth’s company, and in the company of his doubles and triples, and their families’ doubles and triples. They blur together, this parade of Roths and Zuckermans and Kepeshs, in satisfying, increasingly complex ways. I’m particularly enamored of the dizzying, down-the-rabbit hole flurry of books published between 1986 and 1995, beginning with The Counterlife and ending with his darkest, funniest novel, the National Book Award–winning Sabbath’s Theater, in 1995. In between there are two slim, (relatively) straightforward memoirs about Philip Roth (The Facts and Patrimony), and two novels about a fictionalized "Philip Roth," one of which, Operation Shylock, features a Roth imposter running around Israel evangelizing for a reverse exodus.
Roth was at his most animated as an explicator of his own work when discussing the nuances of the autobiographical impulse. In his Paris Review interview with Hermione Lee, he explained the way a writer might take on a role subtly different than the one they played in real life. He said, for example, that "Céline pretended to be a rather indifferent, even irresponsible physician, when he seems in fact to have worked hard at his practice and to have been conscientious about his patients. But that wasn’t interesting." Whereas for William Carlos Williams, depicting himself as a pragmatic, dedicated doctor and father, was interesting. "You have to be awfully naive not to understand that a writer is a performer who puts on the act he does best—not least when he dons the mask of the first-person singular," he continues. "That may be the best mask of all for a second self." This remains as true—and somehow as resistant to comprehension in some quarters—as it was when he said it in 1984.
It’s the silencing of Roth's unmistakable voice—hectic, quibbling, exhortative—that, even more than his relentlessly autobiographical tendencies, makes one feel as though a garrulous, ever-surprising old friend has been lost. He was not a maker of exquisite sentences like his peers and rivals John Updike and Saul Bellow. Rather, he was a poet of excess, accumulation, and repetition, often blowing past good taste on his way to get somewhere more interesting. This passage from Sabbath’s Theater, in which Mickey Sabbath responds to a sudden declaration of love, captures a lot about Roth’s voice when he's on one of his breakneck tears, with his juvenile, ever-present sexual fixations jammed up against complex, convoluted revelations of character:
Licking those sizable breasts, whose breastish reality seemed no less tantalizingly outlandish than it would have been when he was fourteen, Sabbath told her that he felt the same about her, allowed it while looking up at her with that smile of his that did not make entirely clear who or what precisely he had it in mind to deride—confessed it certainly with nothing like her declamatory ardor, said it almost as though deliberately to make it appear perfunctory, and yet, stripped of all its derisive trappings, his "Feel the same about you" happened to be true.
Maybe this would be a good place to talk about Roth and women. (Or maybe that passage just about covers it?) Vivian Gornick wrote a vividly argued and much quoted essay about the way that Roth’s narrators, beginning with the title character of his infamous, spectacularly successful novel Portnoy’s Complaint, transfer their rage at the powers that be on to the women they’re sleeping with, creating an "impassioned association of woman-hating with being Jewish-in-America" that outpaced even Bellow’s. The most memorable heroines in Roth’s novels—Mary Jane Reed (referred to throughout as the Monkey) of Portnoy’s Complaint, Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater, Consuela Castillo ("superclassically the fertile female of our mammalian species") in The Dying Animal among them—are celebrated foremost for their enthusiasm for sex. Especially in the later books, most notoriously in The Humbling, the coupling of older men with alluring, sinister younger women feels mechanical and cheap. And that’s just the tip of the, uh, iceberg.
If Roth’s work featured a paucity of developed female characters, it’s also true that he didn't shy away from the damage his male characters do to these women and to themselves, often as a result of their failure to recognize the women in their lives as fully human. Roth’s narrators are fun to listen to (up to a point), but they’re also narcissistic, cruel, sex-obsessed, and deceitful. Roth’s characters of all genders inhabit a charged psychological landscape that operates more fully on the level of rhetoric than dramatic realism. One reads Roth knowing (sometimes explicitly, in the case of some of the Nathan Zuckerman books) that the action on the page is taking place in a unique, fevered male imagination, complete with the obsessions and glaring blind spots this entails. A number of the female fiction writers and critics I know admire Roth’s work for its willingness to frankly plumb the depths of his sexuality, dragging insight up with the muck. (A critic friend wrote to me, comparing him to another notoriously lascivious male author, "At least Roth’s misogyny was always interesting." I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder.)
But to celebrate Roth is to argue with him, to recall the great disagreements about his work that greeted him from the very start of his career—his first story in the New Yorker, "Defender of the Faith," and the novella Goodbye, Columbus, with which it was published in 1959, were infamously criticized as the work of a "self-hating Jew"—and lasted almost to its end. (How did they let Ewan McEwan make a movie of American Pastoral?) The scope of his achievement is too vast to reckon with thoroughly at this juncture. In his restless, reckless tendency to burn through ever more audacious new styles and subjects, the shape of his career perhaps most resembled his iconoclastic peer Bob Dylan, who incongruously nabbed the Nobel Prize Roth publicly coveted.
In the very end, even Roth got lionized and sanitized, with a National Medal of Arts bestowed by President Obama in 2011, a salute to his civic-mindedness from Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, and an extraordinarily generous fictional portrait in Lisa Halliday’s excellent novel Asymmetry. But for a novelist’s long-term reputation, of course, death is only the beginning. There are novels to read and re-read (I’m going bleak with The Ghostwriter, Patrimony, and Exit Ghost), pieces of criticism to revisit (Elizabeth Hardwick’s "Paradise Lost," Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound, maybe Katie Roiphe’s "The Naked and the Conflicted" just to cause trouble), and a major biography by (past VICE contributor) Blake Bailey on the way.
Philip Roth will definitely never read our books, now, not that he would have anyway. But we’ll be grappling with his for a long, long time to come.
Andrew Martin has been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Paris Review. His debut novel, Early Work, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in July.
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