Retracing a Living Legend’s First Steps

Philip Roth: Novels and Stories, 1959-1962

Library of America, 913 pages, $35.

Philip Roth: Novels, 1967-1972

Library of America, 672 pages, $35.

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One interesting way to pass the time is to spend an hour rereading old reviews of Philip Roth’s books. You read them and quickly discover that for as long as Roth has been the boy wonder of American fiction, the critics have been angry with him — and not just for grating on their sensitivities, but also for his perceived failings as a writer. Yes, he’s won a pushcartful of awards. But for 40 years, critics have written of him biliously and with a peculiar lack of charity, the lack that we permit ourselves only when dealing with those who don’t need our charity.

If I may back up for a minute: Roth’s critical reception is an instance of what I call the Spike Lee Problem. It’s a particular defect in popular critical discourse. In scholarly discourse — in which aesthetic judgments are discouraged — praise or condemnation is meted out by paying attention or by withholding it: We know that Spike Lee is an important American filmmaker because film studies departments teach his films and because film studies professors write articles and deliver conference papers about him. But if one looked at popular criticism — the kind that assigns three stars to this movie and two stars to that, or gives a thumbs up here and a thumbs down there — Spike Lee would seem to be a mediocre artist at best. Ambitious, difficult movies like “25th Hour” and “Summer of Sam” are considered failures, held to be unworthy successors to the early hit “Do the Right Thing,” and dismissed with two-and-a-half stars. Meanwhile, “American Pie” gets three stars.

Real geniuses tend to spend their lives on one or two central problems, and in literature that means writing through the same questions time and again. But critics, who have to read (or watch movies, or listen to music) for a living, have a vexed relationship with repetition or sameness. They don’t want to be confronted with the same genius at work in the same vein; it makes their jobs boring. Plus, the repeated instantiation of that genius makes them swell with jealousy, or with annoyance: “You mean he can do it again any time he wants?” This is why, in the art world, Roy Lichtenstein was occasionally called a one-joke artist. Nearly every one of his paintings with Benday dots is brilliant, but some critics couldn’t bear to keep looking.

Only this kind of blindness — blinded by the light, so to speak — could explain Irving Howe’s dismissal of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” or, even sadder, Elizabeth Hardwick’s ho-hum notice for “American Pastoral.” That book is one of the great American novels, and of all Roth’s books it suffers least from bombast and profits most from his ability to sustain an energy of voice over hundreds of pages. It takes a writer as fine as Hardwick to dismiss “American Pastoral” with such cool, faint praise: “Still the saga of the Levov family is a touching, creative act and in the long line of Philip Roth fiction can be rated PG, suitable for family viewing — more or less.”

Roth is always being judged in the context of his other work (“in the long line of Philip Roth fiction…”). This is a patently unfair critical move, but it’s also a terrific compliment: We all should be so lucky as to be measured against “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The less forgivable critical sin is the narcissistic refusal, on the part of the critic, to separate himself from the book at hand, the freelance assignment at hand, and look with a wide-angle lens at Roth’s startlingly rare accomplishment: One man, one writer, has written the archetypal treatment of postwar suburban Jewry (“Goodbye, Columbus”); the book that invented, along with Woody Allen’s movies, the modern stereotype of the neurotic Jew (“Portnoy’s Complaint”); the seminal novel about the lives of struggling grad students in dissertation purgatory (“Letting Go”); a prescient satire of the Nixon administration (“Our Gang”); the classic investigation of the American Jew’s relationship to Israel (“Operation Shylock: A Confession”); a great novel about McCarthyism (“I Married a Communist”); the most memorable indictment, after David Mamet’s scorching play “Oleanna,” of the worst excesses of political correctness (“The Human Stain”); what will stand as the last great novel of racial passing (again, “The Human Stain”), and the most terrifying depiction of antisemitism in America (“The Plot Against America”).

Lorrie Moore put it best: “In terms of sheer productivity, brilliance, distinctly American diction, philosophical rage, comic irritability, dramatic representations of solitude, uniqueness of voice and unwavering repugnance toward heterosexual convention, it is difficult to think of a contemporary artist with whom Roth might even be compared. If one strains and reaches into another medium entirely, Stephen Sondheim comes to mind. Both have committed their lives to a single (if commercially ailing) art form, provocatively pushing at its margins with piercing wit and multi-tonal notes, for the avid consumption of the more literate members of an essentially middlebrow audience — their loyal fans.”

That’s it, in a nutshell, and any critical account of Roth that fails to register his achievement is not only unfair but also untrustworthy. Yet while too many writers are afraid to gush, Moore has the gall to say just how great Roth is, unafraid that she’ll seem the schoolgirl with a crush. Moore gets something else right, too. Roth is working for “an essentially middlebrow audience,” as all the most ambitious artists must. There’s a reason that Roth is more famous than Leonard Michaels, another gifted Jewish short story writer, and it’s the reason that Raymond Carver is, with every passing year, more celebrated than Thomas Pynchon: no points for being difficult. When difficult pays off, it pays big — so I’ll work through William Faulkner or through “Ulysses,” I’ll unpack the meaning in Wallace Stevens. But with the best of the best, usually you can let the people judge. Sometimes they fail. (Where’s the gushing for Wallace Stegner? Why is Richard Yates still mostly unknown?) But the greatest careers vibrate through the ages with a teeth-chattering energy that registers in sales and popular success. Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Frost — Philip Roth is in their company.

All of which is to say that Roth didn’t need this new, lightly annotated Library of America edition of his early novels, 1,600 pages in two volumes comprising “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959), “Letting Go”

(1962), “When She Was Good” (1967), “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), “Our Gang” (1971) and “The Breast” (1972). In fact, one wonders at the utter beside-the-pointness of these omnibus volumes. Who wouldn’t rather kick back with the Vintage paperback editions? In any event, I’ll have no choice. Less than a week had passed after I got my back-straining review copies of the edition before my mutt, J.J., who prefers big books, chewed Vol. I to pieces, ingesting Brenda Patimkin’s bobbed nose along with her brother Ron’s vinyl Montovani Orchestra records.

I’m with the dog: This stuff is delicious.

Not all of it, of course. “Letting Go” is too long, and wildly uneven. Roth makes the fitful pacing of the book work, in a way: The lurches and stallings are exactly what graduate school can feel like, triumphant one day and hopelessly nihilism-inducing the next. It’s unclear how devoted Gabe Wallach is to his dissertation on Henry James; it’s unclear how much the lot of Paul Herz and his sad, sad wife, Libby, improves when Herz gets his first adjunct instructorship, and it’s always uncertain how much the two men like each other. That limbo — uncertain career path, uncertain allegiances — is familiar to anyone who’s been through a doctoral program, but it’s curiously neglected, even by all the fiction writers who have fled from it. Roth also gets a fix on the way that other commitments, like an aging, widowed father or a lover, can be so easily abused; if the scholar tends toward absent-mindedness, the budding scholar is distinguished by his narcissism and thus always preoccupied with his work, competition with his fellow students, his vague career prospects and his frustrated quest for why he even bothers. “Letting Go” is a very fine novel, but in its incontinent length and subdued tone it doesn’t feel a thing like the Roth we love.

Nor does “The Breast,” in which David Kepesh (later to reappear in “The Professor of Desire” and “The Dying Animal”) awakens to discover that through a hormonal disaster he has turned into a man-size breast. His head is pointed like a nipple; his body has swollen into a giant mammary gland. When “The Breast” was published, critics generally took it to be an homage to Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Nikolay Gogol’s “The Nose,” as well as an attempt to master in fiction the raging id of which Portnoy complained. Here was a penis feminized, rendered impotent, and if Kepesh still longed to be serviced by his lover, with some deftly applied rubdowns, then he was nonetheless subservient, forced to heed the better angels of his unconscious — exactly what Portnoy never would do, despite Dr. Spielvogel’s ministrations.

I think that those are correct ways to understand “The Breast.” It’s worth noting, too, that since “Letting Go”seemed like a tribute to James, and “The Breast” to Kafka and Gogol, then Roth, having made startlingly original gestures with “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” was retrenching a bit with these other books, nodding and winking toward the tradition, saying that he could be the obedient as well as the prodigal son.

But still, we’re missing what was surely the most obvious influence on the Roth of “The Breast” and “Our Gang” (a very smart book that I never have enjoyed at all): the experimentalist fiction of the 1960s and ’70s. In the years since Roth had become famous, such writers as Robert Coover and Pynchon had become the campus favorites, doing to literary form what Roth had done to literary convention. Tom Wolfe, too, had come along, exploding what we thought was allowed in prose. No, there’s nothing new (Laurence Sterne did it all in “Tristram Shandy”); but people forget about their liberties, and now they were being reminded. Roth was not the only writer who strayed from his best, most natural voice; around the same time, John Updike wrote a short story from the point of view of an amoeba. By that standard, Roth weathered the age of experimental fiction with very little to be embarrassed about.

So an obvious pleasure of reading the collected early novels is discovering that Roth is more fallible than you knew. If one only read his most famous books, one could hate him, but one never could think him indecisive. Yet the Roth who emerges from these volumes is not sure whether he wants to be comic or earnest, traditional or experimental, or, even, Jewish or goyisher. “When She Was Good” is a perfectly adequate novel of Midwestern repression; the narrative fulcrum is the moment when Laura will either get an abortion or, keeping the baby, marry a man she does not love, consigning herself to a life too much like her mother’s. She’s a less affluent April Wheeler from “Revolutionary Road,” a barely liberated version of the nameless protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She’s also quite the gentile, in the most stereotypically bland way. Roth may have thought that in order to be a great American novelist, one cannot write only about Jews or only about the Northeast. Today it’s hard to imagine Roth ever having felt susceptible to ethnic ghettoization — hard to imagine his caring — but “When She Was Good” makes you wonder.

But it does something else, too. It reminds us that Roth’s authorial voice — brusque, barreling, hilarious, deeply concerned with ideas, erotic — is just that: an authorial voice, not a political statement. It’s the mode in which Roth writes best. He tried out other sounds, and those books, like “Letting Go” and “When She Was Good,” contained deeply felt, sympathetic women and very little in the way of graphic sex. They’re the books of a sensitive, liberal Jewish man, which well may be what Roth is in his private life. But they’re not his best works, nor are they stops on the road to his best works. They’re detours. To read them is to see why Roth abandoned that sensitive, even tone: He writes better when he’s ventriloquizing intellectual but very messed up neurotics, perverts and male chauvinists. Even “Swede” Levov, the blond and assimilated Jew of “American Pastoral,” goes astray in a Rothian manner, French kissing his daughter and so, it turns out, as it happens, destroying both their lives.

Which is to say that these collected works tell us something about the nature of artistry. The more simple-minded of Roth’s critics dismiss him as a sexist or a reactionary; by refusing to see his male characters as complex or troubled souls, yearning to breathe free of their demons, they go on to identify the characters with Roth himself — and then they have their smug political statement to dismiss Roth the Man as well as Roth the Artist. But from the early books, one learns that Roth tried his hand at more pleasant, anodyne plots and people. He just wasn’t as good at them.

The best description of Roth’s genius comes from A. Alvarez, who writes, in “The Writer’s Voice”: “His prose is immaculate yet plain and unostentatious, at once unselfconscious and unmistakably his own. Someone once said that reading him is like opening a cellar door and hearing the boiler roar into life. It’s also like being pitched headfirst into a family quarrel, with everyone shouting to be heard; it makes your heart contract with outrage and excitement at once.” That’s exactly the right metaphor. Quarrelsome families can be exhilarating to belong to, and they may produce some intellectually invigorated children. But like Roth, they’re not for the faint or the tired, and they scandalize the suburban neighbors.

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Retracing a Living Legend’s First Steps

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