The Great American Novel

by Philip Roth

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336

Philip Roth looks back to a golden age of American fiction and American sports to locate his satiric novel within two “greats”: the novel and baseball. He both writes about baseball by focusing on a Second World War-era team, the Ruppert Mundys, and uses baseball as a conceit, or extended metaphor, for the rights and wrongs of American society in that era. This analogy is cemented by his naming the league that the Mundys play in the “Patriot League.” As Roth frames the novel by the obviously named Word Smith with the author’s commentary, he creates a more comprehensive metafiction that forces the reader to contemplate the relationship between illusion and reality.

The complex qualities of American patriotism during the war are one troublesome aspect of society that Roth probes. The relationship between fervent patriotic support of the war effort is contrasted with the insidious penetration of anti-Communist zealots into the very fabric of sports, which ideally would remain above the political fray. With humorously named characters who point to historic American figures, Roth emphasizes these contradictions: the Mundys’ rival team is named the Tycoons, and its owner—whose last name is Trust—leads the Red Scare crusade. Other such figures include Ulysses, evoking both the Greek epic hero and the US general and president; a general named Douglas, evoking MacArthur; and, especially Gil Gamesh, a pun on the Hindu epic character, as the team manager who figures prominently in the Communist hysteria.

These names and the kinds of misadventures that befall the characters off the field add to the overall association between sports and the heroic quest. Roth labors assiduously to reinforce this connection, returning his reader’s attention to this association. Some readers, however, may find it more tedious than amusing to constantly scrutinize the text to be sure they are catching every literary reference. In that regard, the author’s sense of his own mission at times overwhelms the effectiveness of the novel as an ordinary work of fiction to be read.

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