Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8517
Often called a psychological realist by literary critics, Roth uses a variety of techniques in his fiction that make it difficult to classify his work under only one category. His early stories and novels, including Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go, and When She Was Good (1967), were heavily influenced by the great nineteenth century psychological realists such as Henry James and Gustave Flaubert and by later ones such as Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. Portnoy’s Complaint, however, while drawing for its themes and structure upon therapeutic psychoanalysis, represents a breakthrough to new forms of fiction. Since then, Roth has written satire, such as Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends) (1971), fantasy (The Great American Novel), Bildungsroman(the Zuckerman Bound trilogy, 1985), and other types of fiction that demonstrate his versatility and originality as a writer.
Roth has also been called a social critic, and he has definitely earned the title. Taking on the conservative Jewish establishment in both his fiction and nonfiction, he exposes the foibles, coarseness, hypocrisies, and materialism of middle-class Jewish families, as in his portrayal of the Patimkin clan in Goodbye, Columbus. At the same time, he shows the intensity, closeness, and warmth that are also part of their lives. Attacked for his story “Epstein,” in which a decent, hardworking Jewish businessman gets caught in the trammels of an adulterous relationship, Roth has defended himself against rabbis and others who feel he has defamed the Jewish people. He presents his views in essays such as “Writing About Jews” (1963) and “Imagining Jews” (1974), collected in Reading Myself and Others (1975), where he argues on the behalf of the writer’s freedom and the autonomy of the imagination against those who insist on greater discretion and diplomacy.
Where formerly he brilliantly portrayed middle-class Jewish life as it was in the neighborhoods where he grew up, Roth subsequently moved on to other aspects of Jewish life, as in his vivid descriptions of kibbutz life and the controversy over West Bank settlements in Israel in The Counterlife (1986) and the problems of anti-Semitism he encountered while living in England in Deception (1990).
Above all, Roth is an amusing and witty writer, with a good ear for the cadences and inflections of actual speech and a stand-up comedian’s sense of timing. His humor has been attributed to influences such as comedians Lenny Bruce and Henny Youngman, but Roth also acknowledges the influence of the “sit-down” comedy of Franz Kafka, about whom he writes in “’I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’: Or, Looking at Kafka” (collected in Reading Myself and Others). He modeled his novella The Breast (1972; revised, 1980) partly on Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis.” The humor and tall tales that grew out of the great American Southwest inform The Great American Novel, which also indulges in send-ups of famed American writers Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others.
In Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth has said, he tried to bring obscenity to the level of a subject. He may or may not have succeeded, but it is true that in that novel, as in his later works, he has taken full advantage of the current freedom to explore sexual involvements in an open and direct way. Yet, for all his apparent licentiousness, as in his stunning takeoff on Irving Howe as the pornography king, Milton Appel, in The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Roth remains what he always was, a serious writer with a strong moral strain that remains under even the wildest humor or most grotesque fantasy.
For all of his extravagant sexual exploits, Portnoy is a pathetic creature, a man desperately trying to become whole with the help of a psychiatrist. For all of his...
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