Roth, Philip (Vol. 6)

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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2890

Roth, Philip 1933–

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A Jewish-American novelist and short story writer of the first rank, Roth has been attacked by both Jews and "Wasps" for his burlesques of their ordinary, real worlds. He himself remains steadfast in his assertion of the novelist's right to invent reality—even a kind of sanity—in a world gone mad. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The Great American Novel] is undoubtedly at its best on [its] simplest level—as a burlesque history of baseball. This kind of writing can be done successfully only if the author has a genuine feeling for the game—its excitements, its legends, its heroes, and its disasters—and Mr Roth clearly loves baseball. (Oddly enough, it is virtually the only human activity he does show much feeling for in this novel.)… His success in this respect is probably due as much as anything to the nature of baseball itself, a thoroughly democratic entertainment which, however seriously it is taken, always has room for a ribald, wise-cracking humour. (p. 1073)

As an historical-political allegory, The Great American Novel unfortunately has little or none of this high-spirited inventiveness. The failure has more to do with Mr Roth's execution of his design than with any fundamental weakness in the design itself. His central idea is a good one…. In fact, Mr Roth seems to be about to embark on a fairly sophisticated theme—the perception that in the past thirty years America has been its own worst enemy.

This promising scheme fails to work, however, largely due to the mechanical parallel between baseball and politics…. What we have here is not creative satire but simply a mechanical act of translation.

This unenterprising method is part of a general failure of comic invention where Mr Roth's political material is concerned. The reality of modern America is frequently more weird and more laughable than anything he can contrive. His radio interviews reproduce accurately the silliness and vulgarity of the media, but they never achieve the phantasmagoric quality of Richard Nixon's "little dog" television broadcast of 1952. The Watergate Committee on a dull day is livelier than Mr Roth's Un-American Activities hearings…. [The] actuality of politics [has] entered an absurd world which he does not begin to imagine. As a satirist of American public life he appears to be working at secondhand, to be using the ideas and observations made current by writers like Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy. His writing lacks precisely that quality which gives theirs its incomparable sharpness and originality—an intimate and fascinated acquaintance with the events of the day. If he enjoyed the tragi-comedy of politics as much as the drama of baseball, he might have succeeded.

The failure of Mr Roth's literary parodies is related to this weakness. In order to burlesque great literature successfully, a writer must have some feeling for what he parodies…. The fictitious Jacobean tragedy which Pynchon constructs in The Crying of Lot 49 is excellent not only because it is funny but because the author is sensitive to the imagery, the verse movement, and the sombre atmosphere of his models…. Mr Roth's parodies are [callous and offensive]…. One is confronted here not with a refreshingly ironic vision of American literature, but with the clichés of the emptiest kind of academic criticism—indeed, Mr Roth's parodies are so barren in perception that they often read like a mediocre work of criticism or a dull undergraduate essay.

The Great American Novel , though it is deficient in its feeling for literature, is in a bad sense much too literary. Almost everything in it seems second-hand and derivative. Even the idea of using a baseball story to satirize the myths of America is not new: it has been anticipated in a better novel, Bernard...

(The entire section contains 2890 words.)

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