Philip Roth Essay - Roth, Philip (Vol. 2)

Roth, Philip (Vol. 2)

Roth, Philip 1933–

An American novelist and short story writer, Roth is the author of Portnoy's Complaint, The Breast, and The Great American Novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[While] the American-Jewish novelist has … had a subject,… he has been searching diligently, questing imaginatively, [but] he has lacked an ideal form. Now, with "Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth ("Goodbye Columbus," "Letting Go," "When She Was Good") has finally come up with the existentially quintessential form for any American-Jewish tale bearing—or baring—guilt. He has done so by simply but brilliantly casting his American Jewish hero—so obviously long in need of therapy—upon a psychoanalyst's couch (the current American-Jewish equivalent of the confessional box) and one of those bullseye hits in the ever-darkening field of humor, a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect—and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious….

If viewed as the apotheosis of a genre, the culmination of a fictional quest—and it is, I think … the very novel that every American-Jewish writer has been trying to write in one guise or another since the end of World War II—then it may very well be what is called a masterpiece—but so what? It could still also be nothing more than a cul-de-sac….

[Whether it is] a deadend auto-da-fé or open-end bar mitzvah peroration … on the road to cultural manhood—read "Portnoy's Complaint." And don't feel the least bit guilty about enjoying it thoroughly: I know not since "Catcher in the Rye" have I read an American novel with such pleasure.

Josh Greenfield, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1969, pp. 1-2.

Philip Roth is a skilled practitioner of literary acupuncture. Jewish mothers, Midwestern emasculators, the nouveau riche—he has pierced them all with his sharp-edged fiction. The target of Roth's latest shaft [Our Gang] is no one less than President Richard Milhous Nixon himself and the curious coterie that surrounds him….

A writer with Roth's comic gifts can't but produce some outrageously hilarious moments…. But Roth is only partly successful for, while his aim is true, his satire isn't Swift. Occasionally his anger gets the best of him and his humor sours. In fact, Nixon's rough treatment at Roth's hands may very well invite more sympathy for him than anything since the Checkers speech.

Arthur Cooper, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, November 6, 1971; used with permission), November 6, 1971, p. 53.

Political speech, Orwell wrote, is "largely the defense of the indefensible" and political language consists of "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." These grim deductions, more than the vagaries of the Nixon Administration, are the real subject of Philip Roth's "Our Gang," perhaps the funniest and most complex exercise in sustained political satire since "Animal Farm."…

The absurdity of Roth's fabricated situations conceals a legitimate target: the tendency of our governments to hold truth and decency in contempt. It is tempting to take "Our Gang" very seriously indeed, but it is, finally a very funny book, funny in the way that Dryden, Swift and Pope were funny. The point of such a satirical assault is that it must be outrageous, must be overdone, even if in the process a joke or two is trampled to death. Even Roth's use of crudely derogatory names for his characters echoes a great tradition: in his satirical poem "MacFlecknoe," Dryden called his rival, the poet Shad-well, "Sh—" as in "But loads of Sh—almost choakt the way."

"Our Gang" is, perhaps, more rooted in specifics than is the greatest political satire—than is, for example, "A Modest Proposal"—and therefore, if it is read a quarter century hence it will be read with footnotes climbing up the pages. But reading Roth's book today; and putting it down to read headlines of the Administration's plans to deprive a million and a half children of meals in school, is a disorienting experience. The trick is how not to confuse the joke with the reality—that is, if the reality is not the joke.

Peter S. Prescott, "Joking in the Square," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1971; reprinted by permission), November 8, 1971, p. 110.

Taken on its merits, The Breast isn't a bad story; a ridiculous story maybe, good-humored and minor, but not bad. You might look at it as a mild parody of Portnoy's Complaint, the sort of thing authors sometimes write to clear their systems before going on to their next serious work. There are some funny rub-down scenes, a couple of good interviews with the psychiatrist, and a moment or two of almost genuine pathos, none of which really go anywhere unless you happen to be familiar with Roth's previous books and stories. At best, it is a humorous afterthought, an in-group tour de force composed for the delectation of whatever academics, critics and editors have taken a certain amount of time out of their lives to ponder the writings of Philip Roth; and if it had appeared in some cultist publication like Commentary, I doubt if I would have had the slightest objection to raise. Published in its present form, however, it is little less than a fraud. Roth's new publishers are implying that the contents are worthy of the price of admission, which they patently are not. In the world of letters, this is known as "cashing in on an author's reputation."

L. J. Davis, "Would You Believe, Doctor …?" in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 17, 1972, p. 4.

The highest value in fiction (as everyone has always known except novelty freaks and, of course, the criticism industry) is moral stability, the ability to celebrate reality without distorting or evading it, though admittedly that's worthless, impossible in fact, without masterful technique and the ability to invent the right vehicle—realistic or, as in "The Breast," fabulous. The truth of what you say is what really matters, and the only importance of technique is that when you say it badly you haven't said it. Sloppiness and self-indulgence, as in such earlier Roth novels as "When She Was Good" and "Portnoy's Complaint," debase the vision, making it seem either false or silly. Feebleness of invention, as in some of his early stories, limits the vision to, at best, the merely touching.

Technically at least, "The Breast" seems to me Roth's best book so far. The humor and pathos (it has fair amounts of both) come from his solid grasp of how life is, his firm knowledge of the importance of strength of character and the will to live. Or, as Kepesh calls them in his meetings with his psychiatrist, "S. of C., and the W. to L." He explains: "These banal phrases are the therapeutic equivalent of my lame jokes. In these, my preposterous times, we must keep to what is ordinary and familiar."

The trick which is the heart of the book is brilliant: to celebrate the ordinary, the silly, the banal, create a grotesque and extraordinary banality—a huge detached breast with human consciousness and feeling. The trick is so good, so obvious and easy and yet so rich with meaning, it's a little hard to translate from what it is, a piece of art, to reviewer's language….

There are two secrets to pulling off such a literary trick, and Roth knows them. First, once committed to reporting the experience of a man turned to a breast, the writer must by powerful imagination immerse himself in the situation. What exactly would everyone involved feel, think, say, do? (You can get away with mistakes in the realistic novel. That's why one can write best-selling trash. In a world constructed out of thin air, impishness and childish joy, one little slip and you're a dead man.) Roth is on good terms with the hunchbacked muse of the outrageous. His dull, real people in an outlandish situation are hilarious. The spinster nurse who pretends not to hear the breast's obscene suggestions. Or the former English department head, now dean, at Stony Brook, whom Roth caricatures with relish and mad genius.

The second secret is that one must, all the time one writes, be so steeped in the meaning of the central conceit (more a matter of feeling than of intellect) that nothing comes into the story just for laughs. Every event, every joke, must ambush the reader with reality while he laughs, and again Roth mostly pulls it off.

He also does, I'm sorry to say, what I've always found tiresome and stupid in his writing, especially of late, and what's worse, he does it right at the beginning, which may prevent some readers from ever reaching the good parts. He talks much too much—like a hung-up schoolboy or like the trendy popular novelist he is, for all his virtues—about taking down his trousers, studying his penis, moving his bowels, maintaining his sexual potency, and so on….

The fault's not enough to wreck the book; though for me, at least, it undermines the book's authority. And I may as well mention the symptom of what some may think another fault: The story doesn't linger the way the best writing does, imposing its own reality on the reader's way of seeing for days and weeks.

I think the reason is this: Roth doesn't chisel out sentences like a poet. He writes with intelligence and sophisticated cleverness, delightfully and lightly. Nowhere am I startled by a fine new idea, a turn of phrase that inclines my hair to stand up. These are matters of taste, no doubt. In matters of style, I personally prefer the mildly apocalyptic to the banal.

But I say all this merely for the sake of completeness. Roth is no Gogol—a comparison he boldly and jokingly invites—but "The Breast" is terrific for a thing of its kind: inventive and sane and very funny, though filthy of course, as I've mentioned. It's incredible, in fact, how smart he is for a man so hung up with his you-know-what.

John Gardner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 17, 1972, pp. 3, 10.

[The] novelty of The Breast doesn't lie in its situation. Roth's work since Portnoy has been full of comic surrealism, and what happens to Kepesh is no more implausible than the fate of the talent scout Lippman, for example, in the brilliant story "On the Air" [in New American Review, No. 10, August, 1970]. What is note-worthy is that Roth, having chosen a story line that looks ideally suited to his taste for outrageous sexual farce, has sidestepped the opportunity and instead written a work of high seriousness. The Breast has its laughs, but they seem like indulgences. Roth has permitted himself along the way to an oblique, cryptic statement about human dignity and resourcefulness.

Kepesh's plight quickly ceases to be funny as attention is diverted from his physical state to his agony of spirit. How can a man accommodate himself to the unthinkable? Why does the will refuse to surrender when the mind sees no escape? Kepesh's complaint, unlike Portnoy's, begins to subside as his dormant courage stirs….

The shift of emphasis comes with notable suddenness after Roth's venture into political satire in Our Gang…. Roth's humor in Our Gang is literally atrocious; his sense of being politically in the right licenses him to create a depersonalized, paranoid world in which sadistic fantasies are considered chic so long as they're directed against the right figures….

To my mind, however, Our Gang and The Breast stand roughly equidistant from Roth's best mode, which is neither "political" nor "moral."

From the very beginning from the moment when Neil Klugman, on the opening page of "Goodbye, Columbus," gets a glimpse of Brenda Patimkin's rear—Roth's forte has been the portrayal of compulsives whose humane intelligence can't save them from their irrationality. The sharpness and energy of his work have to do with a fidelity to the petty idiocies of the unconscious….

In a sense [The Breast] is a more discouraging work than the straightforwardly vicious Our Gang. Aspiring to make a noble moral statement, Roth quarantines his best insights into the way people are imprisoned by their impulses. What would Alex Portnoy have had to say about that?

Frederick Crews, "Uplift," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), November 16, 1972, pp. 18-19.

When Philip Roth published his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, the book was generously praised and I was among the reviewers who praised it. Whatever modulations of judgment one might want now to propose, it is not hard to see why Roth should have won approval. The work of a newcomer still in his twenties, Goodbye, Columbus bristled with a literary self-confidence such as few writers two or three decades older than Roth could command. His stories were immediately recognizable as his own, distinctive in voice, attitude, and subject; they possessed the lucidities of definition, though I would now add, lucidities harsh and grimacing in their over-focus. None of the fiction Roth has since published approaches this first collection in literary interest; yet, by no very surprising turn of events, his reputation has steadily grown these past few years, he now stands close to the center of our culture (if that is anything for him to be pleased about), and he is accorded serious attention both by a number of literary critics and those rabbis and Jewish communal leaders who can hardly wait to repay the animus he has lavished upon them. At least for a moment or two, until the next fashion appears, we are in the presence not only of an interesting writer but also a cultural "case."…

What one senses … in the stories of Goodbye, Columbus is an enormous thrust of personal and ideological assertiveness. In the clash which, like Jacob with his angel, the writer must undertake with the world around him—and, unlike Jacob, must learn when and how to lose—there can be little doubt that Roth will steadily pin his opponent to the ground. His great need is for a stance of superiority, the pleasure, as Madison Avenue puts it, of always being "on top of it." (Perhaps he should have been a literary critic.) Only rarely do his fictions risk the uncharted regions of imaginative discovery; almost all his work drives a narrative toward cognitive ends fixed in advance….

What is almost always central in Roth's stories is their "point," their hammering of idea, and once that "point" is clear, usually well before a story's end, the portrayal starts to pale….

This kind of tendentiousness mars a number of Roth's fictions, especially those in which a first-person narrator—Neil Klugman, Alex Portnoy—swarms all over the turf of his imaginary world, blotting out the possibility of multiple perspective….

And as for those of Roth's stories that avoid the looseness of the first-person narrative, his own authorial voice quickly takes over, becoming all but indistinguishable from a first-person narrator, raucous, self-aggrandizing, and damned sure that the denouement of his story will not escape the grip of his will….

Neither before nor after "Defender of the Faith" has Roth written anything approaching it in compositional rigor and moral seriousness. It may, however, have been the presence of this story in Goodbye, Columbus that led reviewers, including myself, to assume that this gifted new writer was working in the tradition of Jewish self-criticism and satire…. But now, from the vantage point of additional years, I think it clear that Roth, despite his concentraton on Jewish settings and his acerbity of tone, has not really been involved in this tradition. For he is one of the first American-Jewish writers who finds that it yields him no sustenance, no norms or values from which to launch his attacks on middle-class complacence.

This deficienty, if deficiency it be, need not be a fatal one for a Jewish writer, provided he can find sustenance elsewhere, in other cultures, other traditions. But I do not see that Roth has—his relation to the mainstream of American culture, in its great sweep of democratic idealism and romanticism, is decidedly meager. There is no lack of critical attitude, or attitudinizing, in Roth's stories, but much of it consists of the frayed remnants of cultural modernism, once revolutionary in significance but now reduced to little more than the commonplace "shock" of middlebrow culture….

Unfocused hostility often derives from unexamined depression, and the latter, which I take to be the ground-note of Roth's sensibility, fully emerges only in the two novels he wrote after Goodbye, Columbus. But even in the early stories one begins to hear a grind of exasperation, an assault without precise object, an irritable wish to pull down the creatures of his own imagination….

He is an exceedingly joyless writer, even when he is being very funny. The reviewers of his novels, many of them sympathetic, noticed his need to rub our noses in the muck of squalid daily existence, his mania for annotating at punitive length the bickerings of his characters. Good clean hatred that might burn through, naturalistic determinism with a grandeur of design if not detail, the fury of social rebellion—any of these would be more interesting than the vindictive bleakness of Roth's novels….

Portnoy's Complaint is not, as enraged critics have charged, an anti-Semitic book, though it contains plenty of contempt for Jewish life. Nor does Roth write out of traditional Jewish self-hatred…. What the book speaks for is a yearning to undo the fate of birth; there is no wish to do the Jews any harm … nor any desire to engage with them as a fevered antagonist; Portnoy is simply crying out to be left alone, to be released from the claims of distinctiveness and the burdens of the past, so that, out of his own nothingness, he may create himself as a "human being." Who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so lofty in spirit never to have shared this fantasy? But who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so foolish in mind as to dally with it for more than a moment?…

The talent that went into Portnoy's Complaint and portions of Goodbye, Columbus is real enough, but it has been put to the service of a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity…. By vulgarity in a work of literature I am not here talking about the presence of certain kinds of words or the rendering of certain kinds of actions. I have in mind, rather, the impulse to submit the rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification; the urge to assault the validity of sustained gradings and discriminations of value, so that in some extreme instances the concept of vulgarity is dismissed as up-tight or a mere mask for repressiveness; the wish to pull down the reader in common with the characters of the work, so that he will not be tempted to suppose that any inclinations he has toward the good, the beautiful, or the ideal merit anything more than a Bronx cheer; and finally, a refusal of that disinterestedness of spirit in the depiction and judgment of other people which seems to me the writer's ultimate resource….

About the remainder of Roth's work I have little to say.

Our Gang, purporting to be a satire on Richard Nixon, is a coarse-grained replica of its subject….

The Breast, extravagantly praised by my literary betters, is a work to which, as students would say, "I cannot relate." Well-enough written and reasonably ingenious, it is finally boring—tame, neither shocking nor outrageous, and tasteless in both senses of the word….

Flaubert once said that a writer must choose between an audience and readers. Evidently Roth has made his choice.

Irving Howe, "Philip Roth Reconsidered" (reprinted by permission from Commentary; © 1972 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, December, 1972, pp. 69-77.

This 78 page "novel" [The Breast] is just stupefyingly bad; I read it through twice, surely more than Roth himself has done, just trying to fathom what could have made him write it…. A bet? The desire to write the worst book he could? A deal to write a book by May 15 that hadn't been started the morning of the 14th? I can't imagine. It will, and should be, read, if at all, standing up in a bookstore.

Roger Sale, "Enemies, Foreigners, and Friends," in Hudson Review, Winter, 1972–73, pp. 703-14.