The Facts Critical Essays

Philip Roth


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

On the dust jacket of The Facts is a 1950 photograph of Roth’s senior homeroom class at Weequahic High School in Newark. The future author gazes into the camera with a cherubic smile, the kind of boy of whom teachers and parents were justly proud. Yet the observer notes that in the group portrait he is standing slightly to the side of the others, as though already committed to Emily Dickinson’s ambition to “tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.”

In his 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction,” Roth bemoaned the imagination’s inability to rival the grotesque reality of contemporary American life. Why invent when the world already offers up events and characters that exceed the powers of fantasy? Roth’s fictions have been a slanted tribute and challenge to that world. His autobiography is a carefully constructed demonstration of how difficult it is not to shape The Facts. Though Roth claims “exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions, and lies,” he nevertheless, in another of his characteristically sly exercises in imagination, has Zuckerman note that autobiography is “probably the most manipulative of all literary forms.”

Written when its fifty-five-year-old author was recovering from what he refers to vaguely as surgery that put him on “the edge of emotional and mental dissolution,” The Facts presents itself as the attempt of a middle-aged author to reconcile himself at last to the ghosts of his past. For the man who gave voice to Alexander Portnoy’s vociferous complaints, this is an oddly mellow evocation of the joys of Jewish family life in what are presented as the halcyon years following World War II. Even the post-football game attack against the Jews of Weequahic by their rivals of Barringer High is presented almost wistfully, as a thrilling adolescent adventure. Zuckerman asks Roth where his trademark anger has gone, accusing him of idealizing and sentimentalizing people and situations that have long ceased to threaten him, of leaching the venom from his sources of creativity. He has transformed the primal domestic household that empowered the rage behind his best-known fictions into “a serene, desirable, pastoral haven.” Yet Roth also retains the services of Zuckerman to poison the treacle.


(The entire section is 938 words.)