Roth, Philip (Vol. 3)
Roth, Philip 1933–
A prominent American novelist and short story writer, Roth writes witty, often outrageous, satire. Highly praised for his artistic use of the middle-class Jewish idiom, Roth has, in more recent fiction, satirized the Protestant midwest, the Nixon administration, and baseball. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Philip Roth's collection of short stories [Goodbye, Columbus] is the year's [1959's] best fiction work on Jewish life in America, and illustrates a neglected literary principle: sweet and sour are the uses of irony. Sweet? Irony, particularly as Roth uses it to pour ridicule and tribute on his characters, gives the writer a tighter grip on life as well as a sustaining literary medium, and takes him on a sentimental journey to a past so timeless it encroaches on our future. Sour? Such irony as Roth's exposing the foibles of self-conscious, newly-minted American Jews, lets the writer needle society for its sickness (albeit Roth contracts the infection himself), furnishes his stricken ego a defense mechanism to fight back in anger, and discolors everything (the sick, the well, the medicine, the poison) into a blurred, disquieting, but entertaining smear….
Like Bernard Malamud, Roth relates the struggle of the poor pilgrims fleeing the ghetto for the utopia of American-style Success and Acceptance. Whether or not his wayfarers realize that they are gambling their souls on their perilous journey, most of them fall ignominiously by the temptation-crowded wayside. And those who still manage to plod onward are generally so bruised by their earlier encounters that they are unfit for any new rigors, and thus are hardly any better off than the fallen ones. In Roth's view every Jew is still a Wanderer, each adjustment is a destructive compromise. But what soul-journeys he describes!…
No other current fiction work dealing with Jewish life in America has come anywhere near Roth's achievement, which ranks easily with National Book Award-winner Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel." Despite Roth's lapse in taste and his seamy pictures of life, he has brought more depth of feeling and a higher degree of intelligent expression to his literary photography than has anyone else for the past year or more.
Roth's talent is so powerful, on those occasions where he exercises it properly, that he has it in him to go very far as a serious American writer. All he needs now is a little more self-analysis, experience with different kinds of people, and relaxation when writing, for he is still somewhat ill at ease with his material.
Samuel I. Bellman, "Irony: Sweet and Sour," in National Jewish Monthly, December, 1959, pp. 39-40.
Although there are "redeeming social values" in generous profusion—of narrative drive and comic vitality, of lunatic wit and that murderous precision of social observation that has always been Roth's birthright—let's not distract ourselves with apologetic cant. Portnoy's Complaint is a desperately dirty novel; and that, like it or not, is its chief joy and aesthetic principle. In order to impart some sense of its central and pervasive quality, one would have to scald this page with an assaultive spilling-out of all the famous words and phrases which—despite all fatuous (and disingenuous) disclaimers about how "boring" they are in their insane and brutal repetitiveness—have never lost their ancient power to shock and appall, repel and magnetize, disgust and delight, disclose and illuminate, for better or worse; which is to say they have never, in the hands of a master, lost any of their old power to perform the full work of a literary language.
Saul Maloff, "Tropic of Conversation," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 21, 1969, pp. 23-4.
[Portnoy's Complaint] is (like almost everything Roth has written) the work of a virtuoso. As a describer of boyhood sexuality Roth is now without equal; as a portrayer of the Jewish mother he is the world's champion. But in one crucial way Portnoy's Complaint is a disappointment. On first reading I was caught up in Roth's brilliance and audacity, and as the several sections appeared in magazines I waited eagerly for the next one and then even more eagerly for the complete book. But reading it all together, reading most of it for the second time, I discovered that the jokes were funny only once, that the situations quickly lost their freshness. More important, the characters turned out to be flat and lifeless. By the last few chapters, the experience of reading it was sour and dispiriting.
The problem, perhaps, is that Portnoy's Complaint is only a Jewish novel, or perhaps only an anti-Jewish novel. Portnoy's mother, father and mistress are seen without perception or compassion—the mother is only an overpowering Jewish mother, the father is only a frustrated little man, the mistress is only a nyphomaniac shiksa with mild social ambitions. In no case are we allowed to understand how the character came to be this way. As a result, Portnoy's Complaint lacks the very relevance to North America as a whole that has made the best of Jewish fiction (including Roth's) so widely admired; it is, in the end, as provincial, as obsessively ethnocentric, as any of the self-praising old-fashioned Jewish novels that Roth would probably despise. The saddest Jewish joke of all is that Philip Roth's most eagerly awaited novel is also, by a very long way, his least impressive accomplishment.
Robert Fulford, in Saturday Night, April, 1969, pp. 41-4.
Though the satire in Portnoy's Complaint is generally first-rate, the book hardly ever rises to irony. Irony requires dimension, the possibility of grandeur, and what we have here is a series of caricatures. Father, mother, sister, mistresses—even Portnoy himself—each has one act, one shtik. Mother is a statue of illiberty; father a constipated nebbish; sister a fat, graceless non-shikse; each of the mistresses merely one of the main currents in American thought. And Portnoy is not so much a human being as a monomaniacal hangup….
In spite of these reservations, Portnoy is sure to be regarded as a kind of literary Second Coming. Halfway between Oy! and Wow! it proves that the Jew is just as good a jerk, just as magnificently and mysteriously irrational, as any goy. In fact, it may well earn immortality on even another ground: that it is the first novel to be written by a Jew who was voted one of the hundred best-dressed men in the world.
Anatole Broyard, "Portnoy's Complaint" (originally titled "A Sort of Moby Dick"; copyright © 1969 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 42-6.
Philip Roth gains complexity in point of view through the brilliance and range of his mimicry. In his earlier fiction, Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Letting Go (1962), Roth's talent for mimicry was superbly evident, but it tended to focus on a character or particular scene, to bring to life an interplay of personalities or a dramatic confrontation without providing any perspective or attitude. In his more recent work, however, Roth has developed the mimicry from an able parroting to a means of entering and revealing another consciousness. In When She Was Good (1967), for example, Roth uses the perspectives of Lucy Nelson's stalwart, old grandfather, her drunken, self-pitying father, and her indolent and dependent young husband to reveal the hard, destructive, truth-seeking character of the girl herself. Each of the males is seen partly in the rigid way Lucy defines him, partly through the more charitable perspective of his own defenses. Similarly, Lucy is seen through both the opaque geniality and frightened banality of the three men who think they care for her, and the literal and uncompromising logic with which she views her own experience. All these points of view flash against each other powerfully, are permitted full development without explicit authorial mediation or control….
When She Was Good shows how the middle-class perspectives originate, how the insistence on guarding oneself, keeping oneself from any central kind of involvement, is necessary protection in the face of necessarily hostile experience; Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969) demonstrates the other side of the same tradition, the rebellion against middle-class perspectives. For Roth, White Anglo-Saxon Middle-Western Protestant and Eastern European migrant Jew are, in America, part of the same tradition: the mobile, rising, rootless middle class, the bourgeoisie, the class that must keep tight control over its instincts in order to avoid chaos. Far from being a local-colorist or, like Bernard Malamud, a believer in the aesthetic and ethical value of a presumably unique Jewish tradition, Roth provides an account of the axioms of the middle class apparent in the fifties and sixties in America. He has more in common with the Thomas Mann of Buddenbrooks or the Arnold Bennett of The Old Wives' Tale than he does with Malamud. In Portnoy's Complaint, the novel of rebellion, sex is the instrument for revolt from the middle class, for sex dissolves the tight uninvolvement, the rigid defense of the integrity of aloneness, necessary for the bourgeois figure to make his way in a hostile world…. Portnoy's Complaint brilliantly chronicles the necessary steps to begin breaking away from the middle class, outlines the conditions of revolt. Yet, as in When She Was Good, Roth does not provide a one-dimensional defense for his central character. Rather, Portnoy, like Lucy Nelson, is seen from numerous perspectives, is made silly, strong, intelligent, dependent, cowardly, and knowledgeable all at once. Roth's compassion, an extension of his mimicry, of his ability to enter into the framework of other human beings, of his own creations, need not require the sentimentality and defensiveness of a single point of view.
James Gindin, in his Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 356-58.
Philip Roth's The Great American Novel seems to be a great American bore that's impossible not to put down shortly after you pick it up, a book destined to be distributed to some 100,000 buyers (thanks to book clubs) who will not read it because it's unreadable. One must remember Roth's earlier ambitions to create fiction larger than the fantastic reality we all live in, or else he will believe the worst about The Great American Novel.
The worst being that Roth is in the grip of the writer's curse, to go on writing when he has nothing to write about because that is what he knows how to do. Or that Roth is on a 180,000-word ego trip to see how long his formidable resources of language can support a joke before collapsing under the weight of language. (Answer: about 15 pages.)
A more charitable view would be to see Roth as fighting the reality battle and supporting literature's mental health—that is, functioning as Roth did with The Breast, searching for pure fiction in an environment that outstrips fiction, conducting artificial respiration over the gasping form of the novel. The Breast was exactly such a triumph of imagination and conviction over facts, it seemed to me. A work of creative wonder. The Great American Novel is its opposite. A creative flat tire….
Some of The Great American Novel is funny. Most of Roth's scorn and derision of our follies [fails] to escape the novel's mannerism and cut deeply to truth. And all of it is delivered with a verbal windiness that verges on gale intensity. But Roth obviously had a marvelous time writing the novel. Fast and easy. All daydreaming and typing, it seems. Lots of characteristics but no characters. Plenty of set-up jokes and clowning around with history. No emotions to prove or human conflicts to examine.
It's the kind of book gifted novelists write for the hell of it, drop into a bottom drawer and forget. Roth is the exceptional gifted writer. He decided to publish his exercise. Of course, I may be all wrong. If you are a literary intellectual baseball freak and like book-length "Laugh-In" jokes, here is Phil Roth's rival to your own special reality.
Webster Schott, "No Joy in Mudville," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 3, 1973, pp. 2-3.
Philip Roth, who has lately seemed an author in search of a subject, turns to an old interest in his new novel. "Oh, to be a center fielder, a center fielder—and nothing more!" was the yearning cry of Alexander Portnoy, condemned like the rest of us to be a great deal more—a son, a sexual creature and a human being, among other things. For thinking men, non-performers, sports offers a tempting glimpse of grace, of the merging of self into pure and formal function. "The Great American Novel" is a book about baseball and its power as heroic and pastoral myth, but savingly tempered by Roth's understanding of the awkward contradiction at the heart of the dream, the fact that upstairs, so to speak, there's the thing itself, the girlfriend's older brother in "Goodbye, Columbus," Big Ron Patimkin, the Mantovani put aside for the Columbus record, while the jock-straps dry in the bathroom….
Roth's talent for cruel and shameless comic extravagance gives us marvelously raunchy vignettes of the sporting life, certainly, and he gleefully exploits our readiness to let baseball stand for America itself, as in [a] conversation between a nervous Jewish team owner (who fits his players' uniforms himself) and his bright, theory-filled son … who wants to run the team….
But Roth's determination to get in every joke he can think of about our past and present follies—patriotic paranoia, racism, sexual infantilism, the vulgarity of the media—finally is exhausting and self-defeating.
Nor does the book's other large dimension, that of literary parody and game-playing, quite justify the effort expended in it. The narrator is a decent-minded but hopelessly logorrheic octogenarian sportswriter, Word Smith, confined to an old-age home in Valhalla, New York, but still trying to redeem the suppressed story of the Patriot League for history. "Call me Smitty," he begins his narrative, and we soon see that not only Melville but various other great American novelists—Hawthorne, Twain, Hemingway and Company—are presences in his way of telling his tale….
It is hard to forgive an intriguing book for not being the marvelous one it seemingly could have been. I like "The Great American Novel" for being richly ribald, witty and impudent, as well as movingly perceptive about what we have invested in our fragile culture. But bad taste alone doesn't make successful art, though of course it helps, and the book is too long for its own energies to sustain, too committed to a kind of "black humor" whose charm has seen its day, too easy in its confidence that inventiveness can do the work of design, that the author can say anything at any time and make us swallow it. But then I suppose that only Philip Roth could write one of the few good books about sports in English and leave one feeling, after many pages of rich local pleasure, disappointed and exasperated, still waiting for what his immense talent long ago promised us.
Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1973, pp. 27-8.
Mr. Roth's considerable gifts are illspent on parody in the service of an abstraction, and when the comedy emerges flaccid and arch, as it does consistently [in The Great American Novel], his technique of shifting responsibility for the comic failure to the voice that is being parodied spares no one any tedium. This novel is, among other things, a remarkable display of the aggressions of which the literary imagination is capable when, enamored of its endless possibilities, it runs amok, confident for good reason that the prevailing fashion will honor its very effort so long as it bears the stamp of "social criticism."
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 8, 1973, p. 50.
[Roth's] The Great American Novel is not about popcorn, peanuts, and crackerjack, or how it feels to sit your ass sore in the hot stands, but how the play is broadcast and reported, how it is radioed, and therefore it is about what gives the game [baseball] the little substance it has: its rituals, its hymns, chants, litanies, the endless columns of its figures, like army ants, the total quality of its coverage, the breathless, joky, alliterating headlines which announce the doings of its mythologized creatures—those denizens of the diamond—everything, then, that goes into its recreation in the language of America: a manly, righteous, patriotic, and heroic tongue.
William H. Gass, "The Sporting News," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), May 31, 1973, pp. 7-8.
Philip Roth wrote a good book called Goodbye Columbus some years ago. It was short, honest and funny. Then he progressed to the Great Novel—two versions of same, in fact: Letting Go and When the Going was Good. These were the work of a Herman Wouk with a university education. Next came Portnoy's Complaint, that moderately amusing wanker's odyssey, a 'minor classic' which was compared, I recall, to Confessions of Zeno. Mm. Our Gang, the satirical work which followed, made me feel for the first time that Nixon really had something going for him. Now there is The Breast, a leaden allegory in the manner of Gogol's The Nose and Kafka's Metamorphosis: both works are referred to, in case one hadn't got the point.
A friend, who greatly admires the book, assures me that it's about human dignity triumphing in circumstances similar to those in which terminal patients become vegetables: the six foot mammary gland which David Alan Kepesh becomes is a symbol of that condition. It makes sense. What irritates me about the story? novella? is that Roth has it so easy: it's a slick old professional job with arty trimmings. It has no depth nor resonance: it is a crude borrowing from works of real imagination by a writer who has temporarily opted out of the novelist's responsibilities.
Paul Bailey, in London Magazine, June/July, 1973, p. 154.
It has to be said right off that this story [The Great American Novel] is farfetched, and not in the triumphant literary way that reaches across impossible distances to bring back something imaginatively useful and right. No, it's farfetched like any fantasy that doesn't spring from deeply felt experience. More than that, its crude absurdity is a measure of Roth's inability to find a dramatic equivalent, a plot, for the authentic feelings he has had about baseball, feelings that he evidently wishes in this book to celebrate at the same time as he thrusts satirically against the seamier side of the whole enterprise of baseball as national myth: its perversion by greed, jingoism, bromidic morality.
But there is a more purely literary, or methodological, difficulty. A tale such as this, if it is to be the creation of a usable myth, or of a myth about myth-making, has to unfold within a counterworld, a mock universe in which what exists and takes place has all the plausibility, the specificity and detailed inevitability, of actual history, but with a grand indifference to history, which is, after all, only factual. In this respect The Great American Novel more closely resembles such recent sham epics as John Barth's Giles Goatboy or Nabokov's Ada than it does a more or less straightforward baseball novel like Mark Harris's The Southpaw or Bernard Malamud's The Natural.
Yet Roth, unlike Barth or Nabokov, isn't content (or strong enough) to fashion a pure fable, a likely story in which resemblances to life are wholly factitious and the invented life is entirely autonomous and artificial. Along with his fake beings and events he introduces real ones: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; Judge Landis, the long-time commissioner of baseball; the Depression; World War II. The intention may be to set fact and myth, history and imagination, in a relationship whose outcome will be the reader's increased consciousness of the ways they mingle and may be confused with one another.
If this is so, there is something self-defeating in Roth's method, an aesthetically destructive principle deriving, the internal evidence suggests, from his hunger for Swift-like political commentary. There is a discontinuity, as there isn't in Swift, between his inventions and his opinions, between what he has imagined and what he thinks he knows about reality. The book's "real" elements, for all their sporadic presence, tend, like the intrusion of documentary film segments into fictional cinema or into plays, to undermine the creations, which come to feel coerced into being instead of freely imagined, dragooned for the purposes of political or social satire. The further result is that the historically factual elements seem to be present for the establishment of a convincingness, an authenticity that the fictional ones have been unable to achieve on their own….
If Roth's book doesn't work in its broadest outlines and procedures, its incidental (and at times more than incidental) qualities are deserving of much respect. When he is immersed in the self-contained world of baseball itself, having for the moment relinquished his attempt to force it into the service of his political tendentiousness, his writing often becomes relaxed, surehanded, evocative….
In a tactical move somewhat similar to one employed in his previous novel, The Breast (where he attempted to disarm criticism by pointing out within the text his fable's debt to Kafka and others), Roth has his narrator include at the end a number of rejection letters the manuscript has received from publishers. A witty ploy, but it backfires, for among the letters is this one: "I am returning your manuscript. Several people here found portions of it entertaining, but by and large the book seemed to most of us to strain for its effects and to simplify for the sake of facile satiric comments the complex realities of American political and cultural life." A bit harsh and stodgy, it's still a self-critique of rough accuracy.
Richard Gilman, "Ball Five", in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 3 (Summer, 1973), pp. 467-71.
Portnoy's Complaint is interesting to those concerned with the literary use of names because Roth exploits fully both real and fabricated names. Sometimes playfully and sometimes seriously, he makes names function both as allusion and symbol, using them to shed light on the essential conflict in the novel, that of the half-assimilated Jew in a society of goyim….
Names, then, are an important aspect of Roth's style in Portnoy's Complaint. They evoke not only a young man's growing pains as a Jew in a non-Jewish world, but also America as it appeared to those who grew up in the Forties and Fifties.
Bernice W. Kliman, "Names in Portnoy's Complaint," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 3, 1973, pp. 16-24.
Roth's laughter too often becomes thin-souled, a kind of simpering posture directed against human potential for significant pain or joy. This lack of significance shapes the essential reductive quality of Roth's work; in many of his short stories and novels, with the exception of Letting Go, whether writing of a Jewish milieu or (less convincingly) of a Gentile one, whether writing of sex, politics, marriage, religion, ambition, or motherhood, Roth reduces human beings to carnival snap-shots of themselves—sometimes comic, sometimes ugly, sometimes wistful, but always without that strength of existence, that awareness of moral truth which (even when attenuated) redeems our temporal grotesqueries into the possibility of significant human action.
Without such possibility, exact observation and a sense of incongruity may not, after all, be enough. A critic like Irving Howe, for example, while praising Roth's "malicious accuracy" in Portnoy's Complaint, insists that the book lacks "imaginative transformation." Realism itself, finally, unshaped by other than casebook significance, and existing on the literal level of observed mannerism, becomes merely another form of sentiment….
The very absence of mythic allusion, the determined, frequently caustic, and always close observation of admittedly limited human beings for which Roth has been both praised and damned by his critics, may produce fiction at once uninspired and uninspiring, but (say Roth's defenders) it is the true fabric of American life. And Philip Roth, like the good tailor of fiction that he is, cuts this fabric to fit the actual bodies before him, no matter how grotesque or limited they might be….
In Goodbye Columbus and Letting Go, in When She Was Good and Portnoy's Complaint, the reductive qualities of the actual lives before us are framed by an aura of moral law and religious faith. With the latter two books, however, Roth can affirm neither, even as possibility; comically distorted or pathetically attentuated, transformed into non-sequiturs by a culture in which both law and faith are rendered solely in terms of gesture or abstract (and therefore inoperable) verbalism, good and evil become but echoes of themselves: the parodies of, rather than exempla for, positive or negative moral force.
In When She Was Good and, most especially, in Portnoy's Complaint, parody is both the technique and substance of Roth's fiction, as it is of the work of a writer like Sinclair Lewis. Far more than Lewis, however, for whom mimetic surface—the act of ironic imitation—was its own reward, Roth is preoccupied with larger questions of moral possibility; and in this respect he is far closer to the lyric despair of F. Scott Fitzgerald than one would imagine from the enormously different textures of their work….
"Real life" for Philip Roth, especially in Letting Go, is based upon moral judgment, and for this reason the book is a more powerful work—and a far more "Jewish" one—than the celebrated Portnoy's Complaint, in which moral choice is defined as neurosis, and moral anguish as discomfort. Portnoy's Complaint, indeed, despite its popularity (especially among non-Jewish readers), is a rather desperate attempt to escape from the charge of parochialism by means of stock character and hand-me-down psychiatric motivation. An extended shaggy-dog story, the novel represents an avoidance of precisely that moral substance which provides the chief impetus for Roth's best writing. Like Mailer's retreat into what [Cynthia] Ozick calls the "minor liturgical art" of journalism, Portnoy is an attempt to "be with it" by externalizing, through the reductive instrument of caricature, the moral universe itself. The book fails not because it is "too Jewish," but because it is not Jewish enough….
Portnoy's Complaint fails because the problems of moral judgment which are the focus of Roth's best work (and a central preoccupation of Jewish novelists)—the meaning of responsibility; the ancient fear of chaos; the relationship between tribe (Jew) and non-tribe (Gentile); the compulsive urge to teach and comment upon moral law; the ambiguities of love—these problems cannot be dismissed as a series of slick-magazine "repressions." "Ass is no panacea," says Uncle Asher, the decayed Bohemian, in Letting Go: good advice for art no less than for life.
Unlike Portnoy's Complaint, where freedom is the rainbow and "repression" the wicked witch (in the person of still another overprotective mother, this time with a stage accent), Letting Go—Roth's best novel—examines the destructive aspects not merely of evangelical morality, but of freedom itself: or rather, freedom without responsibility, which becomes moral anarchy. Lacking what Paul Herz finally comes to recognize as "consequence," human choice is reduced to impulse, and human beings, as Martha says to Gabe Wallach (himself incapable of commitment to anything but his own appetites) are "jelly-filled." If Alexander Portnoy runs through the gentile world clutching his genitals and begging for the goo of perpetual excitement, the frenzy of emotional self-lubrication, Paul Herz—looking at his Uncle Asher with "old Jacob's eye"—comes to recognize such "freedom" for what it is: a poisoned lollypop, a means not of potency, but of spiritual castration….
The "old Jacob's eye" of moral judgment and personal commitment is, finally, the vision which Paul Herz achieves—and Gabe Wallach denies; without such vision the realist is blind even in the particular environment he claims to have mastered. And it is this insistence upon moral value, the "metaphor" of judgment, which gives to Letting Go a sense of authenticity not to be found either in When She Was Good or Portnoy's Complaint: the one a traditional re-telling of familiar "American" themes, and the other an attempt—through caustic mimicry of surface mannerism, the parroting of casebook abstraction, or a fashionable selfhatred—to escape from significance itself.
Letting Go is a major American novel not in spite of its Jewishness, but because of it. Neither before nor since has Philip Roth—the belligerent "particularist"—succeeded so completely in fusing universal human drama with the particular qualities of his nation and people.
Stanley Cooperman, "Philip Roth: 'Old Jacob's Eye' With a Squint," in Twentieth Century Literature, July, 1973, pp. 203-16.
The Great American Novel differs instructively from the author's other full length fantasy Our Gang. On the evidence of the latter book at least, Roth's gut-feeling for politics in general and Richard Nixon's politics in particular is not much more acute than that of any other concerned and literate Manhattanite. But, as we know from his early novels and short stories, his feeling for baseball, his loving regard for its myths and mechanics and legendary giants, is particularly deep both for itself and as an integral part of his own complex and very American childhood and adolescence. Out of his memories of youth he has made some of his finest fiction. He has done it here too, sporadically. In its best moments, Roth's love for and understanding of the Great Game raise the Mundys' desperate saga to a kind of idiotic nobility.
There remains, of course, the interesting question of why a significant American novelist should in his prime devote a full length book to the fantastical fortunes of an imaginary second world war baseball team. Novel-writing being among the more patriotic professions in the United States, it's naturally inconceivable that the book can be treated simply as a cheerful wallow in nostalgia. No, somehow or other we have to locate its true relationship to the shifting soul of the great republic. Thankfully, there's only room here to indicate a couple of the more obvious possibilities. First, that the collapse of the Mundys, a team of incompetent but basically honest and genuine ballplayers, is meant to mirror the replacement of an authentic American popular culture by one that is spurious and dishonest and wholly mercenary. Second, that the whole mode of the book is designed to illustrate the fashionable opinion that the condition of contemporary America is so grotesque that the only way of interpreting or enduring it is by means of farce and fantasy and manic-depressive fun.
Peter Prince, "Old Glories," in New Statesman, September 21, 1973, pp. 393-94.
Roth, who seems to have decided that a gift for outrage is his most important instrument, has preserved the accuracy of his ear for comic speech [in The Great American Novel]. What he has, for the time being at any rate, given up are the other novelistic skills, which were so evident in Letting Go. Perhaps it was the failure of When She Was Good, or the success of Portnoy's Complaint, or both, that confined him to the fantastic and the farcical.
The Great American Novel certainly is funny at times, even for non-Americans. But it is dreadfully overdone, and often goes boringly awry, as in the long Prologue, which endlessly imitates an alliterative sportswriter and makes elaborate weak jokes about Hemingway, Melville, Hawthorne and Twain. Later, the outrage on which the fun depends is clumsily telegraphed: for instance, the pitcher who uses not only saliva but other bodily secretions such as earwax to make his pitch curve is obviously going in the end to urinate on the ball, and indeed he does….
And so it goes. One detects, in several American novelists now writing, a belief that only by a perpetual exhibition of frenzied and ludicrous invention can one prove that one can put forth the energy essential to the American novel. This may be a genuine reaction to the felt outrageousness of contemporary America, but it is presumably also a matter of fashion. In any case, the effect, to the foreign ear, is not always quite what was intended for the illusion is less of frenetic energy than of an antic provincialism or an insecurity camouflaged by bluster.
Frank Kermode, "High-Pitched," in The Listener, September 27, 1973, p. 424.
The stories in Goodbye, Columbus are of a special kind. They are neither probings through strategic incident to reach the inner folds of character nor affectionate renderings of regional, class, or ethnic behavior. They are not the work of a writer absorbed in human experience as it is, mirroring his time with self-effacing objectivity. Nor is Roth the kind of writer who takes pleasure in discovering the world's body, yielding himself to the richness of its surfaces and the mysteries of its ultimate course. If one recalls some of the motives that have moved our novelists—a hunger to absorb and render varieties of social experience, a respect for the plenitude of the mind, a sense of awe induced by contemplation of the curve of heroic fate, a passion for moral scrutiny—none of these seems crucially to operate in Roth's work. It is, in fact, a little comic to invoke such high motifs in discussing that work, and not because Roth is a minor writer but because he is a writer who has programmatically denied himself the vision of major possibilities.
What one senses nevertheless 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 says, 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….
Roth's stories begin, characteristically, with a spectacular array of details in the representation of milieu, speech, and manners and thereby we are led to expect a kind of fiction strong in verisimilitude. But then, at crucial points in the stories, there follows a series of substitutions, elements of incident or speech inserted not because they follow from the logic of the narrative but because they underscore the point Roth wishes to extract from the narrative….
One reason Roth's stories are unsatisfactory is that they come out of a thin personal culture. That he can quote Yeats and Rilke is hardly to the point. When we speak of a writer's personal culture we have in mind the ways in which a tradition, if absorbed into his work, can both release and control his creative energies….
When we say, consequently, that a writer betrays a thin personal culture we mean, among other possibilities, that he comes at the end of a tradition which can no longer nourish his imagination or that he has, through an act of fiat, chosen to tear himself away from that tradition….
Perhaps this thinness of culture has some connection with that tone of ressentiment, that free-floating contempt and animus, which begins to appear in Roth's early stories and grows more noticeable in his later work. Unfocused hostility often derives from unexamined depression, and the latter, which I take to be the ground-note of Roch'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 which can hardly be explained by anything happening within the stories themselves….
Roth is not a "natural" novelist at all, the kind who loves to tell stories, chronicle social life, pile on characters, and if in his early fiction he seems willfully bent on scoring "points," in the novels his will exhausts itself from the sheer need to get on with things. He is an exceedingly joyless writer, even when 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.
What, one wonders, does he really have against these unhappy creatures of his? Why does he keep pecking away at them? I think the answer might furnish a key to Roth's work. Perhaps as a leftover from the culture of modernism and perhaps as a consequence of personal temperament, Roth's two novels [Letting Go and When She Was Good] betray a swelling nausea before the ordinariness of human existence, its seepage of spirit and rotting of flesh. This is a response that any sensitive or even insensitive person is likely to share at some point and to some extent, but it simply does not allow a writer to sustain or provide internal complications of tone in a large-scale work. It starts as a fastidious hesitation before the unseemliness of our minds and unsightliness of our bodies; it ends as a vibration of horror before the sewage of the quotidian.
Irving Howe, "Philip Roth Reconsidered," in his The Critical Point (© 1973; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1973, pp. 137-57.