One never knows why another human really does what he does. And as readers, we can’t ever really know why an author makes the decisions he does on the page. Authorial intent is somewhat sacred. All we can do as readers is speculate on the work as it sits, or sings, on the page.
But speculating on Philip Roth’s announcement of his retirement, I can’t help but wonder: Is it even true? Or is Roth, who has written his past four books, slim volumes published respectively from 2007 to 2010, in what appears to be a white heat, now merely suffering from writer’s block?
The phrase Roth used — “I’m done” — is compelling here. Is Roth, not even 80, truly too old to write? He is not a ballerina or a baseball player; writers get more in shape as they age, do they not? Do they not, in fact, become better writers the older and perhaps wiser they become? The more time they spend in the world? Our society, and the publishing industry within it, does backflips for the first novel, most especially if it is written by someone very young. (And even more so if that someone is also very beautiful.) But do we get better, as writers, with age as our scope of experience broadens, as our technical proficiency grows? Or do we lose touch with the world? Do we become embittered by our lives and what has become of them, and does that make us turn inward and cruel? Do we then see that reflected on the page?
Roth published “Goodbye, Columbus” in 1959, when he was 26. It is a young man’s book in the way that it holds back nothing: It takes on the world and his community, and its defiance is youthful. Many people — read: many Jews — hated him for it and decried him because of it. They went on to hate him a decade later for “Portnoy’s Complaint,” also a fierce takedown of what it meant to grow up a Jewish boy in America. In fact, Roth has been saying “Screw you” for a very long time. Have you read “Sabbath’s Theater” recently? Here our hero masturbates on a dead woman’s grave. Have you read “The Humbling” from 2009? A green dildo is a main event. And “Everyman”? An aging man has a lot of sex — in many ways, in a variety of positions — with a 24-year-old Danish woman.
My question, if there is one here, is this: Has Roth run out of things to write, or has he run out of ways to shock? Because the most beautiful and essential part of Roth’s work, what makes him the writer he is, is to me, a stalwart and loyal reader, and someone who will grieve that I have done all the reading of Roth there is to do, far more important than the shocking bits There were the glove makers in “American Pastoral.” There were the gloves. There was the complicated and wonderfully rendered relationship with his father in the nonfiction work “The Facts.” The soldier suffering from wearing a prosthetic leg in “The Plot Against America.” There is the terrible cost of secrecy in “The Human Stain.” There is the love and fear of a mentor in the “The Ghostwriter,” where Roth begins the story of his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. And there is, anchoring that very first collection, a gorgeous jewel of a novella, “Goodbye, Columbus,” where a young man from Newark reels from the consequences of falling in love with a wealthy girl from the suburbs. In his interview in the French magazine Les Inrocks, Roth stated: “I don’t know anything anymore about America today. I see it on TV, but I am not living it anymore.”
I believe I can say unequivocally that no one has written so completely and so honestly, bravely even, about the American experience. He put Newark, N.J., on the literary map. And perhaps, as he told David Remnick in his definitive profile on Roth from 2000, and as Remnick recalls in the New Yorker blog, writing might be his “fanatical habit.” Perhaps it became an unsustainably exhausting one. My friend, a psychoanalyst, told me years ago that Roth, who wrote in isolation and seemed to do little else, was clearly depressed. “The guy’s depressed,” my friend told me. And now, Roth says in that same Les Inrocks interview that he doesn’t even want to read fiction.
Roth told Remnick: “So I went to the Met and saw a big show they had. It was wonderful. Astonishing paintings. I went back the next day. I saw it again. Great. But what was I supposed to do next, go a third time? So I started writing again.”
Writing, for Roth, seems to have obliterated all else. Perhaps no longer writing, if this is in fact what retirement means for a man like Philip Roth, will, at the expense of his reader’s joy, now allow him to live.
Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the novels “Golden Country,” “Something Red,” and the forthcoming “The Mothers.”