Monday, June 4, 2018

Philip Roth: The Agony of Identity

“Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre,” Philip Roth wrote in his 2006 novel Everyman. I had occasion to think of this as I watched my parents pass away. And now, the decrepitude of the body and all that this entails has caught up with Roth, who died a week ago at age 85 of congestive heart failure.

Raised in Judaism, later affirming atheism, Roth might be annoyed by this comparison, but in his work habits he resembled nothing so much as a medieval monk, forsaking most interview requests and even much of urban social life for the solitude of his Connecticut country home. That enabled him to churn out, for over a half century, more than 25 novels of consistently high quality. 

In researching a recent post about Tom Wolfe, I came across the following quotation from the author of The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities, given in a December 2012 interview with British GQ, that sums up my own feelings about much—but by no means all—of Roth’s work:

“Philip Roth is a fabulous writer, but he pretty much stays within his own life. He’s so good – I mean practically anything I’ve ever read of his I’ve really enjoyed. He just has tremendous talent. But I think he should have given himself a break and gone deeper into the society.”

That sums up the nagging dismay that so many—me very much included—have felt at times about Roth. At times, this constant exploration of identity and the writer’s relationship to “Truth” could feel like repetitive, boring navel-gazing. 

And yet…when I took an inventory just now of how many of his books I have read, I came up with 13—roughly half  of his oeuvre.  Clearly, I wouldn’t have returned to his books so often if I hadn’t agreed with Wolfe that Roth could be “fabulous,” “so good,” with “tremendous talent.” 

No wonder Roth ended up America’s most honored and acclaimed novelist in the last half of the 20th century. If the Nobel Prize for Literature eluded him, precious little else did—the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, several film and TV adaptations of his work, bestsellerdom, and the like.

I can’t think of another writer who has returned so obsessively to the theme of identity. It started, but hardly finished, with his identity as a Jewish-American—first in breaking free from its mores and protective defensiveness in early works such as Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, then later—in his stunning alternative history, The Plot Against America—in evoking the bone-chilling fear and suspicion of non-Jewish America toward his kind in his childhood and youth.

But Roth’s fixation on fictionalized personas only thinly separated from himself was so insistent as to verge at times into narcissism. It involved not one, but several alter egos to take up the slack:

*Peter Tarnopol, the protagonist of My Life as a Man, whose marital nightmare to mentally unstable Maureen Ketterer paralleled Roth’s own with Margaret Martinson Williams.

*Nathan Zuckerman, the character that Tarnopol creates in the same novel, and who would go on to serve as the author’s observer-narrators in a series of other novels.

*David Kepesh, the libidinous protagonist in a Kafkaeque tale of bizarre metamorphosis, The Breast, then in a more restrained coming-of-age tale, The Professor of Desire, and the same creature of desire face to face with his mortality, The Dying Animal. 

* “Philip Roth,” not just the author himself but a character, don’t you know—in Operation Shylock, which features two adult Philip Roths, and The Plot Against America, where he speculates about what might have happened to his childhood self and his family had the inexplicably Hitler-friendly aviator Charles Lindbergh been elected President. 

This brief review demonstrates the multiple ways in which Roth played with the boundaries between fiction and reality by writing fictions within fictions, or meta-fictions. After a while it stopped being experimental, subversive or even funny, but simply predictable, and utterly dependent on how far readers were willing to go along with Roth’s frequent explorations of his own neuroses. 

A prime example was the “Zuckerman Bound” cycle, which uses its main character to explore the pain endured by a novelist in using material from his own life. In The Ghost Writer, Roth successfully used the restrained style of Henry James rather than his recent satiric voice as he considered how much he might be reinforcing stereotypes about his own ethnic heritage (a dilemma Roth faced with Goodbye, Columbus and a short story from the same collection, “Defender of the Faith”). In Zuckerman Unbound, he had fun with the scandal ignited by Portnoy’s Complaint. But an excerpt from The Anatomy Lesson was so whiny that I could not see how I could ever read his work again. 

I should have known better. Patrimony, one of his few explicitly non-fiction works, showed how much empathy Roth could exhibit when the subject was not himself. By functioning as witness to another character (in this case, his father) rather than as the chief character in his own script, Roth discovered not only the point of view that would underlie what I believe to be his principal achievement, but also the great subject matter of his last set of novels: the rage against the dying of the light as the American male transitioned from late middle age to old age. 

Portnoy’s Complaint made Roth notorious and materially comfortable, but, I would argue, it was his so-called “American Trilogy” of the late 1990s (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) that assured his permanent place in the American literary canon. The sexual provocateur had been replaced by a more serious figure assessing how different forms of American madness in the postwar period (McCarthyism in the Fifties, radicalism in the Vietnam Era, and what Roth saw as the sexual puritanism underlying both academe and the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s) had upended American success stories.

The stories were individual, but I can’t recall anyone summarizing better than Roth the collective damage to their communities by those who rejected their processes and dreams of assimilation, as demonstrated in this passage from American Pastoral, on life in Newark after the 1967 race riots:

“On the east side of the street, the dark old factories—Civil War factories, foundries, brassworks, heavy-industrial plants blackened from the chimneys pumping smoke for a hundred years—were windowless now, the sunlight sealed out with brick and mortar, their exits and entrances plugged with cinderblock. These were the factories where people had lost fingers and arms and got their feet crushed and their faces scalded, where children once labored in the heat and the cold, the nineteenth-century factories that churned up people and churned out goods and now were unpierceable, airtight tombs. It was Newark that was entombed there, a city that was not going to stir again. The pyramids of Newark: as huge and dark and hideously impermeable as a great dynasty’s burial edifice has every historical right to be.”

If Roth appeared more thoughtful during this time, it was also because he had grown more compassionate and interested in the lives of others. His earlier fiction would have focused on a Rothian figure involved in lovemaking, but his Pulitzer Prize winner of the 1990s, American Pastoral, concentrated on a non-Roth stand-in, “Swede” Levov, with descriptions of the source of their fortune: not lovemaking, but glovemaking. It was the type of material Tom Wolfe could have written.

Not unlike John O’Hara and John Updike, two other American realist writers who ignited censorship battles in their youthful novels, Roth began to write by his early 60s about the freezing moment when eros felt blocked by mortality. In all three cases, it is a fascinating process to watch, like how T.S. Eliot described the month of April in The Waste Land: “mixing/Memory and desire.” 

Identity defined Roth from the start of his career to his end. But it wasn’t so much his identity as a Jewish-American that Roth could never really escape but his identity as an American, period.

In the end, Roth’s work resonated so strongly with even non-Jewish readers because he captured beautifully the allure of the American Dream to outsiders—as well as the cost to them in attaining it. A paragraph like the following from Goodbye, Columbus, would not have looked the slightest out of place in The Great Gatsby:

“It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin."

Besides narcissism, the other serious charge made against Roth over the years has been misogyny. Certainly he has articulate defenders such as critic-fiction writer Cynthia Ozick, who, in an article for The Wall Street Journal, argued that Roth was not castigating women but rather the juvenile instincts that kept males from acting like mensches

Over time, the uproar over Roth’s sometimes critical treatment of American Jews has abated. The increasing tendency of so many people to reveal all their secrets on social media has also rendered critics’ charges of narcissism against the novelist far less effective than before.

But the #MeToo movement has put in a less forgiving light his attitude toward women.
True, no accusations have come to light about Roth sexually harassing women or physically harming any. But charges of sexism and misogyny are, more and more, harder to dismiss. An inordinately large number of Roth female characters fall into two categories: 1) virtuous but dull, 2) beautiful but either shallow or vicious.

Certainly, it would have been understandable if the novelist’s own feelings about women hadn’t been completely colored by two disastrous marriages. First wife Margaret Martinson Williams tricked him into marriage by faking pregnancy, engaged him in endless quarrels, and refused to divorce him until she was killed in a car accident in Central Park in 1968.

The second marriage, to Claire Bloom, flared out in spectacular public fashion, as the actress wrote a tell-all memoir detailing his infidelity and coldness. (In one instance combining the two, she discovered the manuscript for his novel Deception, involving an adulterous middle-aged writer named “Philip” and his boring wife, “Claire.”)

But even this sorry marital history does not adequately account for what Huffington Post contributor Sandra Newman refers to as his “gleefully lascivious objectification of women. He was a man of his time, but in this case he had difficulty surmounting it.

“The man is nothing, the work — all,” Gustave Flaubert wrote in a letter to George Sand. Roth didn’t blur that distinction so much as bombard it, then proceeded to hold each fragment to the light. It would be a simpler world if readers could just enjoy his slashing satire or his quicksilver sentences.

But he regarded himself, no less than other human beings, as complicated, and he was too uncompromising—and yes, honest—to let readers off from doing the hard work of separating his art from his heart.

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