Philip Roth Roth, Philip (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Roth 1933–

American novelist and short story writer.

Roth exhibits in his fiction a brilliant satirical wit. His work explores problems of contemporary Jewish life. Roth has a flair for reproducing the speech patterns of American dialect, whether it is the idiomatic Yiddish quality of Jewish conversation or the cliché-ridden speech of a midwestern WASP. Roth has had the good fortune to achieve both critical acclaim and the fame of a best-selling novelist. His recent novels, The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, examine the artist's interaction with society.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II.)

Bernard F. Rodgers, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[As] an artist Roth has placed his faith in Realism, not Judaism…. [From] the wider perspective available when the ethnic emphasis is set aside for a while, Roth's career is not marked by a vagrant choice of subjects but by a single-minded dedication to a significant goal: finding subjects and techniques which will reveal the effect of the interpenetration of reality and fantasy in the lives of his representative Americans. This concern is what makes an aesthetically coherent whole of his otherwise diverse fictions and supplies the developmental logic which his critics have so often failed to discern. (p. 9)

[In Goodbye, Columbus] Roth is already preoccupied with the central conflicts in American life as they are experienced in the everyday lives of his Jewish characters. These conflicts are economic, psychological, and generational, as well as religious, and they repeatedly point to the underlying incongruity between ethical ideals and material realities in American culture…. [Even in this early work Jewishness is used not to universalize,] but to particularize: to make universal conflicts more specific—"of a time, a place, a group of people, a situation"—and thus more realistic. (p. 19)

In each of the stories [in Goodbye, Columbus] we learn what reality feels like to the protagonist and are encouraged to see the world as he sees it. And this is an important point to recognize at the outset, since this identification of hero and narrator has been Roth's most characteristic fictive voice from the beginning of his career to the present. (p. 33)

Neil [the protagonist of Goodbye, Columbus] should not be confused with Philip Roth. Neil's awareness of his own motives … is never fully equal to his creator's, for the ingenuous questions he poses at the end of his narrative have already been carefully answered in the story itself. Completely accepting Neil's version of events, then, is misleading; instead we must read between the lines, noticing what he does not say as well as what he does in order to draw essential conclusions and implications….

The libidinous and acquisitive part of Neil sees Brenda and the affluent suburban world she inhabits, transforms them into a Polynesian maiden dwelling in an exotic American Tahiti, cam-ouflages itself under the guise of love, and cries, "I want!" At the same time the disapproving moralist in him sees a spoiled little rich girl, a family of Brobdingnags living in a world of conformity and expedience, and decorously protests, "I am horrified." This internal struggle—and Neil's hazy awareness that he has been more willing than he would like to admit to heed the acquisitive cry and ignore the horrified whisper—is what gives his retrospective narrative its bitter, misanthropic tone. Like Portnoy [the central character of Roth's Portnoy's Complaint], he seeks revenge and vents his frustration through verbal abuse; unlike his liberated successor, however, he is denied the outlet of obscenity and must settle for a more restrained mode of satiric attack. (p. 35)

What Neil never fully acknowledges,… is that Brenda is both a person and a symbol to him. She has no life in the novella except as a projection of his desires and fears. Without being fully conscious of it—even in retrospect as he tries to sort out their affair—he sublimates his immediate dislike for her as a person in the interest of his quest for the American Dream of money, status, and Edenic satiety which she and her family personify…. While Neil never appreciates the crucial distinction between loving and wanting Brenda and loving and wanting what she represents, Roth tries to make sure that the reader will. (p. 37)

Like Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go is a novel of initiation and education. While it exhibits the same mastery of American vernacular, social detail, and characterization which his critics had admired in Goodbye, Columbus, however, Roth's novel is a much more difficult, much more complex work than his relatively slight collection. The tendency toward facile polarization of language and character which too frequently marred his early stories—a willingness to rely too heavily on sharp contrasts between the superior sensibilities of his struggling heroes and the inflexibility of the self-satisfied characters who surrounded them which inevitably pushed those stories into the realm of caricature and farce—is all but abandoned in Letting Go. Though social satire is still a prominent element in Roth's art, strict moral schematization is replaced in this novel by an acceptance of the centrality of accident and ambiguity to the realistic depiction of contemporary life. The novel, unlike the stories, is far too complex to allow the comforts of easily distilled moral judgments or clearly defined heroes and villains. Instead, it presents a world as cluttered by seemingly inconsequential action and trivial incident, as unpredictable and defiant of simple definition, as the real world it so accurately reflects; and peoples it with characters as caught up in the web of conflicting moral demands, as frustrated by their inability to make reality conform to their aspirations, as are many of its readers. (p. 48)

[Almost] nothing happens in Letting Go which does not illuminate or advance the psychological journey of its central characters from innocence to experience and maturity. We forgive the first novelist his weaknesses—an occasionally embarrassing stab at portentousness, several arbitrary shifts in point of view, some excessive repetition, a few characters … who are used rather than explored, a perceptible drop in interest in the last hundred pages or so—because his book is finally such an impressive achievement in the mode of Jamesian psychological realism in spite of them.

More importantly, we are willing to overlook these weaknesses in retrospect because, like the characters in the novel, we cannot help but conclude the experience of Letting Go with a deeper understanding of [its] uncomfortable truths…. (p. 59)

The same gloomy aura of inevitability which marked Roth's first novel permeates his second [When She Was Good], and together they can be viewed as somber companion pieces which explore the lives of the American generation which reached its maturity in the Fifties. Letting Go, Roth's contemporary variation on the characters and themes of [Henry James's] The Portrait of a Lady, investigated the psychological debts and sorrows of the urban, college-educated members of that generation in a Jamesian style and language exactly suited to its subjects. When She Was Good, his Midwestern Madame Bovary, his contemporary Main Street, focuses on the remaining members of that generation: the men and women from small towns and suburbs who never went to college or never finished, those who were seemingly predestined to grow up, marry, raise their children, and die within an afternoon's drive of the places where they were born…. (pp. 63-4)

Its disruption of simple chronology, its use of changing centers of consciousness, its repetition of the same incident from several points of view, its guise of authorial objectivity all testify to its technical modernity. Revealing all of the novel's major incidents in the first forty pages, and then spending 250 pages retelling them—and retelling them in the banal language of the characters themselves besides—is a particularly modern approach. Through his linguistic choice, Roth manages to make all of the popular American clichés … tangible factors in the lives of his characters. The limitations of that language effectively mirror the limitations of possibility and perspective which are the fundamental antagonists in [his female protagonist's] pathetic tale. Characteristically, Roth's choice of language and narrative viewpoint forces us into the point of view of Liberty Center's inhabitants, compels us to share their restricted perspective.

Within its melodramatic framework Roth's text unconventionally challenges the sympathetic presuppositions of readers accustomed to finding in American fiction a series of recognizable variations on the archetypal male/female relationship…. (p. 66)

Roth attempted to reverse authorial and reader sympathy throughout most of the book. By presenting much of the story through Lucy's eyes, When She Was Good … attempts to make the reader view the conflict from the woman's perspective. Roth shows why Lucy became a paranoiac shrew, why she did what she did, why a life which begins in a typical desire to do and be good becomes a masochistic extravaganza instead. In the process, he provides devastating insights into the toil in pain and pathology which the archetypal male/female roles can exact from all concerned. (p. 68)

The complexity of When She Was Good is suggested by the fact that while Roth's characters are typical … (as are the characters in most of his fiction) and, therefore, his tale is realistic …, Roth frames his story in formal devices designed to create an aura of myth and legend about it—as Hemingway had done in The Old Man and the Sea and Carson McCullers did in her Ballad of the Sad Café. He sets his tale in the recent past, for example, recognizing that Americans evidence a "dedication to the past so brief that it was legend before it hardened into fact." He makes the story's geographical location intentionally vague: … all we really know is that Liberty Center is somewhere north of Chicago. The name of his town, Liberty Center, metaphorically suggests its symbolic nature and is an ironic commentary on the pathetically limited perspectives and possibilities of its inhabitants as well. The narrative begins in an omniscient, objective, third-person voice, gradually shades into the voice of Willard Carroll, then into the voices of Roy and Lucy, before concluding in the same objective voice in which it began. The effect of framing the story in a prologue and epitaph narrated in this omniscient voice is two-fold. It distances the action and assigns it a legendary, folkloric quality; and, like the choruses in Greek tragedy, it serves to set the scene and comment on the final outcome, producing the effect of ironic understatement in the book's closing pages. Within this framework, the characters' language is tightly controlled so that it maintains a typical tone and vocabulary throughout. (pp. 70-1)

In each of his earlier fictions Roth had attempted to find the most effective means to convey the feel of our cockeyed world, the quality of the social being's private life, the forces at work in those public and private worlds as a particular, representative individual perceived them. In Portnoy's Complaint he found a new, perhaps ideal, way of telling that tale…. Through the device of the psychoanalytic monologue Roth managed to combine the best features of both [fantasy and realism].

The advantages of this stylistic choice are numerous. The psychoanalytic setting provides a realistic justification for Portnoy's vehement soul-baring and finger-pointing, for his use of words and images which would be unacceptable in a more public context, and also for his emphasis on sexual memories. It also provides him with an audience, essential since Portnoy is both analysand and performer, character and author in his own seriocomic tale. The dramatic monologue which this setting provokes has the effect of locking us into Portnoy's vision of the world; and his viewpoint is unqualified by any other (until the punch line), reveals as no other could his interpretation of the burden of his reality…. [We] are forced (as he is) constantly to question where the line between objective reality and his pathological fantasies lies. We are, in other words, forced to consider the interpenetration of reality and fantasy in a life, and are, by extension, made conscious of the same interpenetration in...

(The entire section is 4963 words.)

Judith Yaross Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sixty years after Joyce published his [bildungsroman known as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man], its themes sound hackneyed: a youth caught between his vision of the truth and the sentimental, institutionalized beliefs of his elders; the artist escaping from the world of his father through flights of fancy that become fact. To redeem this adolescent fantasy from the storehouse of cultural commonplaces, a writer has just two choices. The serious approach already canonized, Philip Roth applied his comic vision to the task. The Ghost Writer, haunted as much by Henry James as by James Joyce, is the result.

The story concerns Nathan Zuckerman, at one point called Nathan...

(The entire section is 1409 words.)

Adeline R. Tintner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Who is the ghost writer in Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer? In this nouvelle of guilt about anti-Semitism, the ghost seems to be that of Anne Frank. Roth speaks of her as a "Jewish ghost," and writes of Anne's "seething passion to come back as an avenging ghost!" But Amy Bellette's delusion that she is Anne Frank rediviva cannot sustain the imaginative load the ghost writer carries. It is the madness of art, not the madness of Amy, that is required, so the ghost reveals itself finally as Henry James himself, a ghost that does the writing of the book.

Philip Roth invokes James by his quotations from and continual reference to the latter's short story, "The Middle Years." By a...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Zuckerman Unbound" is about a young Jewish novelist rather like Philip Roth who has just published a wildly successful book called "Carnovsky," which is rather like "Portnoy's Complaint." It's a fine idea: it gives Philip Roth an opportunity to play with celebrity, writers and readers, truth and fiction….

[Nathan Zuckerman, the young Jewish novelist, finds that like] his book, he has become everybody's property….

On the basis of their dual celebrity, a famous actress grants Zuckerman a night in her bed. The next day she stands him up in order to fly to Cuba to see her real lover, Fidel Castro. Zuckerman discovers that literature is not as potent as politics….

Alvin Pepler, the only other major character in "Zuckerman Unbound," has a photographic memory, which may be Mr. Roth's comment on reality unmediated by art. Alvin was the bona fide hero of a television quiz show until the producers forced him to give way to a prototypical WASP who had to be fed the answers. Mr. Roth seems to be saying that authenticity is not always dramatic.

Pepler pursues Zuckerman, first fawning on him and then accusing him of stealing his life for his book. This is the jealousy ordinariness feels for fame. Though he is an ingenious symbol, Pepler is too monolithic, too quickly comprehended, and that is a weakness in the book. Except for Pepler, Zuckerman contends only with himself much of the time, and while Mr. Roth manages this with wit and grace, it is generally true that we are most appealingly ourselves when we are with someone else.

Mr. Roth's voice is convincing and emotionally charged. It is just a bit too easily recognizable, though, like a trademark. It seems to be pitched just a little too high up in the sinuses, too reedy with ironic incredulity. Mr. Roth is old enough now to be past some of these astonishments. It may be time for him to start talking from the diaphragm.

Anatole Broyard, "Books of 'The Times': 'Zuckerman Unbound'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1981, p. 13.

Isa Kapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If it were only a matter of wit and intellect, Philip Roth's position as one of the masters of American fiction would be unquestioned. But egged on by some perverse internal logic, he has since Portnoy's Complaint usually resorted to the tactics of a schoolboy: playing pranks, defying conventions, alternately revering and mocking his elders, and scandalizing his peers. His new short novel, Zuckerman Unbound, is another extravagant complaint, this time putting the blame on fame, though certainly not exonerating, even on grounds of double jeopardy, the family….

The voice is familiar—the exasperation, edged with laughter, bordering on hysteria, of Portnoy's "Whew! Have I got...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

Tony Tanner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Zuckerman Unbound, avowedly a sequel to The Ghost Writer, is] in many ways a repetition which moves to a similar conclusion. It would seem that not only is Roth obsessed with the relationship of art to life, but particularly obsessed with the relationship between art (or the life he writes) and life (the life he actually experienced and remembered)—how much is transformation (art) and how much is mere transcription (betrayal)? I say "Roth" but, in line with this whole problem, he can side-step or back-step here. Zuckerman has written a best seller called Carnovsky. As it happens—as it happens—it is about a young Jewish boy growing up in Newark, his compulsive onanism, his sexual...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Henry Weil

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Is Zuckerman Unbound a success? The answer, unfortunately, is no. What Roth has always done well, he does as scintillatingly as ever. His dialogue rings true; his prose is crystalline. His talent for the outrageous flourish is as devastating as ever…. If nothing else, Zuckerman Unbound is dependably funny.

As deftly as any other writer, Roth can also capture a sense of psychic claustrophobia, the feeling of being trapped because one is a member of a family, or a success, or a Jew. Perfect strangers, as well as unloved relatives, presume that they understand Zuckerman, that he in turn will be automatically sympathetic to them and will feel indebted because of a label someone else has...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Richard Gilman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Zuckerman Unbound Roth] doesn't do much with the novel's main theme, which is, or should be, what it's like to be famous. The book veers off from this into some family matters—[Nathan Zuckerman's] fruitless attempt to win back the wife he's walked out on, the death of his father—which give the feeling of not being integral to any true narrative but rather devised to make up the appearance of one. Roth seems to me to be fulfilling an obligation to write another novel, the next one, and to have started with a creative idea, faltered, then filled out the book with some odds and ends of personal experience, perhaps taking care of some unfinished emotional business.

I'm not concerned...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Edward Rothstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nathan Zuckerman, thrice-married son of a foot doctor, is not just a novelist who likes to quote Flaubert and invoke the powers of Art. No, as Philip Roth intimates in the title of his new novel, Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan has a great mythological predecessor, Prometheus, whose own story was told by Aeschylus in a similarly titled tale. Zuckerman, of course, does nothing so dramatic as stealing fire from Zeus for the benefit of human civilization. All he does is write a book.

In fact, as we know from Roth's own previous book, The Ghost Writer, that is all Nathan Zuckerman has ever wanted to do. The narrative is Nathan's tale of his youthful journey to receive the Word at the feet of E....

(The entire section is 1701 words.)