Philip Roth’s defenders point to his later, more serious works to argue for his place in the canon. In truth, those books make clearer his weaknesses.
Last week, I wrote an unflattering column about Philip Roth. I focused most of my attention on Portnoy’s Complaint, and argued that its author was undeserving of his vaunted perch atop our collective esteem. Many of our readers were incensed, and most offered a common criticism—by ignoring Roth’s later work, went the cri de coeur, I was robbing him of his finest moments as a writer. In one variation or another, the question rang out: What about American Pastoral? Or The Plot Against America?
It’s a fair argument, and to address it we have to begin by taking stock of Roth’s evolution as a writer. Like Henry James, he has produced a body of work that is best experienced chronologically. Read your way through James from The Europeans to The Ambassadors, say, and you see a sketcher of tender, confined psychological scenes bloom into an artist capable of capturing transcendence, freedom, and others of the most elusive spirits that beat wild in human chests. What would you see if you read your way from Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus to Nemesis?
At first, youth, breathlessness, bravado, playfulness, glee. A child who grew up on the fault lines of modern America’s fiercest tremors—the Great Depression, World War II—Roth felt just enough of a quiver to sense the menace creeping underground but not enough of the heat to be forged, like steel, into a man whose words and deeds cut quick. Hence, the early novels. Hence, the giddy denunciations of community, of class, of expectations.
Roth himself summed it up best in an introduction he wrote for the 30th-anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus: “With clarity and with crudeness, and a great deal of exuberance, the embryonic writer who was me wrote these stories in his early 20’s. … In the beginning it simply amazed him that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan—about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.”
His own idea of success soon led Roth away from these exuberances and toward loftier realms, the ones, possibly, he imagined more befitting of truly literate writers and their audiences. Sometime in the 1970s, Roth went meta.
There is, for example, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s famous alter ego, being born as a creation of Peter Tarnopol, another of Roth’s alter egos, in the 1974 novel My Life as a Man. And there is Zuckerman again, five years later, in the lovely The Ghost Writer, sharing a stuffy country house with E.I. Lonoff, a thinly veiled version of Bernard Malamud, maybe, or Henry Roth, as well as a mystery woman who may or may not be Anne Frank. By 1993, with the uproarious Operation Shylock, we have Roth—or someone who bears his name and his facial features, or both—twirling cloaks and daggers in Jerusalem, chasing doppelgängers and observing history unfold, as only post-modern history can, like bits of mosaic falling off an ancient wall.
This stage in Roth’s career was a bacchanal, and like all festivities it, too, had to end. When it finally did, the historical stage began.
To this period—lasting roughly from American Pastoral in 1997 to The Plot Against America in 2004—belong the works that seem to inspire the greatest awe in Roth’s readers. As is evident anywhere from newspaper columns to Tablet’s inflamed comments section, the perceived wisdom holds that Roth finally matured in this period into the sort of writer he was always meant to be, America’s finest portraitist, on whom nothing of the nation’s past and whims and ills is lost.
A close reading, however, reveals his canvass to be much smaller. Roth the historical is Roth at his most myopic, unconvincing, and insecure. Confined to Lonoff’s cottage, Roth was radiant; freed in a fictitious America where Charles Lindbergh is president and Jews are reviled, Roth is lost.
To make sense of history, he applies patterns: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Plot Against America are all told from a child’s point of view or revolve around memories constructed in childhood; all involve a once-Olympian hero falling to earth; and all are thrust into chaos by rampant, radical ideology shredding the fabric of what would have otherwise been an idyllic American society.
In a new novel, 19th-century Europe is a land of ominous mystery, and a Parisian junk shop is the passage to a lost world. An excerpt.