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.
The most famous of these humbled men is Swede Levov. The protagonist of American Pastoral begins his life as a star athlete, an affluent son, and a beauty queen’s husband. He ends it in the squalor of a New Jersey ghetto with his daughter, a Weather Underground bomber living on the lam. She is skeletal, sickly, the victim of serial rape and stern beliefs. The meeting between father and daughter is the meeting between America’s sweet promise and its inexplicably sour present. This is how Roth ends the book: “They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” It’s a question Roth never answers.
Others, however, have. In her fantastic 2006 novel Eat This Document, Dana Spiotta imagined a heroine who’s a lot like Merry Levov. After an act of violence gone awry and decades living under a false name and an assumed identity, the woman, now known as Louise Barrot, considers turning herself in and confessing her crimes. Like Roth’s novel, Spiotta’s, too, shifts frequently between past and present. But Spiotta is never content with terse, simplistic statements like “they’ll never recover.” She is capable of seeing much more than the curdling of expectations. Even amid the howls of politics and fate, she finds the time and the grace to allow her characters the subtleties and small fears of which we all are made. Her Louise, skipping from one persona to another, rarely raising her voice above a whisper, lives not just with the burden of having detonated explosions but with the far more unbearable weight of never really “being truly known by anyone.” Even though they’d lived a very similar life, she’d have little to say to Roth’s Merry, a creature of so much black and white that she converts to Jainism and plans her own self-starvation just to resolve the conflict of her existence.
In The Human Stain, Zuckerman feels the same burden. Even though he is released, in this novel, from the yoke of reflecting on his childhood and is permitted instead to observe the affairs of adults as they unfurl in real time, he is still bubbling with the sort of childlike indignation upon discovering that the world just isn’t fair. It’s a condition the critic Laura Miller nicely diagnosed: The screed with which Roth opens the book, she wrote, decrying the silliness of l’affair Monica Lewinsky, “has a certain Swiftian magnificence, but as a description of what happened in America in 1998 it is dead wrong. The nation was not caught up in a puritanical witch hunt; rather, Americans largely refused to be whipped into such a frenzy, in defiance of the best efforts of right-wingers and certain media figures.”
Roth is right there with the right-wingers and the hyperbolic media in his passion for the Manichean. To him, isms are always toothsome and vices always on the rise and America never more itself as when it teeters on the verge of self-destruction. But America isn’t so simple. The 1950s, McCarthyism and all, weren’t the Grand Guignol Roth made them out to be in I Married a Communist. And the 1960s, with all their rage, weren’t Merry Levov’s stark hideout. Even the dilapidated 1990s had more charm than Roth knew what to do with. Far more hysterical than his fellow Americans, then, he concluded his historical period by abandoning the real for the imaginary.
In The Plot Against America, Roth finally allowed himself to feel fear and loathing uncomplicated by these pesky nuances that well-formulated characters unfailingly force on a novelist. There were intricacies to his plot, sure, and a few haunting and beautiful moments, but there was no mistaking the book’s life force for anything more than a feverish exercise in what-if. The real anti-Semites that taunted the author as a child—taunts that transcended mere racial hatred and were colored by a myriad of other factors—were now full-blown murderous goons, trying on their jackboots in anticipation of pogroms to come. This is the same clarity, crudeness, and exuberance Roth had described as his chief motivator early on in his career, only now the glee gave way to gloom. And the gloom never dissipated: It is very much present in Roth’s recent books, marking the latest phase of his career. Uncharitably, I’ll call those novels of the last few years the novels of dying. Charitably, I’ll refrain from discussing them at all.
Looking back at Roth’s career one sees the same flightless narcissism growing stronger from one novel to the next. The bigger the challenge, the greater the disappointment. Stumbles that would have been forgiven in a book dedicated to smut and effervescence are much more noticeable in attempts to tell America’s history. Even when his prose his sharp—whether or not it is would be best left to personal taste—Roth lacks the ability to climb outside of his own head and give us the world writ large, the sole ability that has ever united the truly great practitioners of the craft, regardless of their styles and sensibilities.
What keeps him from transcendence isn’t necessarily solipsism. His friend and contemporary Saul Bellow shared the same preoccupations with the self; even his admirer Alfred Kazin noted that Bellow was “a kalte mensch, too full of his being a novelist to be a human being writing.” But when Bellow wrote, he soared. Augie March, Moses E. Herzog, Charlie Citrine—all are very much Saul Bellow, but also very much not him. They were born, like Athena, from their creator’s forehead, and then took to earth seeking justice, courage, and wisdom. They are us. They are humanity. They’re the stuff a Nobel Prize in literature is made of. They’re nothing like Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh and Mickey Sabbath, all of whom are only ever Philip Roth and never anything more.
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.