The Refusal to Make Things Easy for Anyone

For an age where more people are porn-literate than literature-literate, the nerdy Roth may prove to be his most transgressive persona in posterity, although there’s another candidate for the role. As all the tributes pour in and multiply in thousands of bytes on our screens, there’s another thing that no one has really mentioned: his political astuteness.

On Philip Roth, 1933–2018

Let’s get the stupid bit about the shared last name out of the way. It affected me. When a young wannabe, I couldn’t read him, not willingly, not without trepidation, certainly I couldn’t read him well. One overwhelming, brilliant father was enough, thank you. Later, a rueful joke: “Yes, like the novelist, not related,” or dismissive, “Roth, like Henry or Joseph.” Distance, denial, mistrust, a touch of unearned condescension, the attitude of so many writers my generation and a little older, both toward the man and the writer, whether we were tri-state Jews or golden midwest goys, like David Foster Wallace. The feeling was mutual, judging by the books. Men roughly my age, that is of a generation who would have been Roth’s children, had he wanted any, began appearing in his novels throughout the late ’90s and mid aughts. We were a bunch of whiny upstarts, puritans, biographers, journalists, “thoughtless opportunists” and “entitled schemers” (Exit Ghost) or already castrated paragons of mushy devotion to our brilliant, sexy girlfriends and the older men who covet them (“he seemed to take pleasure in deferentially calling me ‘Mr. Zuckerman’” is how one such ephebe is first characterized). Or, like Drenka’s son in Sabbath’s Theater, a cop, a character who seems to exist only so he can catch the master puppeteer in various delicta flagrantia atop his mother’s grave and stop the carnal play in the name of the law. Daughters fare worse: the tragedy inside American Pastoral, a reverse-engineered King Lear, is of a child driven to madness by her inability to acknowledge a father’s love—one of the few times in Roth’s fiction that he sympathized his way into seeing things from a parent’s point of view, and he did it by imagining a child turned terrorist.

As early as Goodbye, Columbus, there were signs that he would make no concessions either to popularity or posterity—when Neal refuses to let his girlfriend’s younger sister win at ping pong and makes an enemy of her. This was mostly about class: the resentment of anyone who appeared to have it easier, and the refusal to make things easy for anyone, least of all himself. He did not wish to be well thought of. He wanted to compel, to astound, to win. I wasn’t interested. Where there was kindness in the fiction, it was toward those in no position to return the favor. (I’m astonished to recall the subplot of the same story, when Neal helps a black child outwit the racists in charge of the Newark public library. This was 1959, so mutterings about liberal condescension are out of place. Also, it’s clear that Neal sympathizes with the kid because he recognizes a kindred spirit, a fellow escapist.) And there was a similar kindness in the man, attested to in his campaigns on behalf of imprisoned and dissident writers like Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Havel, and Ivan Klima.

These weren’t distinctions I was in any position to notice when starting out, predisposed, for lame reasons to do with insecurity about my identity—a Jew, a writer, a mostly straight man, a Roth—to dislike the novelist before it was cool and culturally acceptable to dislike him as a way to feel more secure about one’s identity. “To be thrilled by great art, I had to abnegate my own gender,” Talia Lavin writes in an otherwise appreciative homage to the great Phil. But what about those of us whose gendered desires were already, as it were, assimilated and comprehended in the author’s consciousness? Sometimes subjectification is a worse fate than objectification. At least no one is speaking for you and doing it better than you do yourself. What got me over it? It wasn’t an epiphany, exactly, nor an Oedipal surrender. Some of it had to do with my feeling that he was often as much misunderstood by his admirers as by his detractors, and then that he was his own best and harshest critic.

People were always prone to talk about him like he was some kind of savage from the American id, all the tropes that turned up in the recent obits and personalized Facebook tributes—“unsparing,” “honest,” “shining a light into dark holes,” Dwight Garner recycling the tired handshake joke one last time—this line has gone mostly unchallenged since Alfred Kazin’s Portnoy’s Complaint review in 1969, in which he poked at young Philip for having reduced all to “psychology,” and possibly his own psychology at that, and psychology being reduced to sexuality. This is all true, but not the whole truth. In the later words of Nathan Zuckerman,

I’d been treated by writers and critics, then in their forties and fifties, as though I didn’t and couldn’t know anything about anything, except a little something perhaps about sex. . . . If I dared speak, these elders would scornfully shut me up, sure that I knew nothing because of my age and my “advantages”—advantages wholly imagined by them, their intellectual curiosity never extending to anyone younger, unless the younger one was much younger and pretty and a woman.

This was the way of Roth’s world, and one he’d come to adopt himself, but he always yearned and often succeeded in being more than Portnoy (and eventually more than Mickey Sabbath) and it’s a useful thought experiment to imagine his oeuvre without those particular human stains. Even had he never written those novels, his work would still stand out as exceptional for his ear, his observations of the absurdities and turgidities of the suburbs, his portrayal of cities, neighborhoods, and the rituals of daily life—think of the contrasting refrigerator anatomies in Goodbye, Columbus—his playfulness with literary models and genres, as with his reinvention of the Henry James-style künstlerroman in The Ghost Writer. What made him available to me, finally, in my late 20s and early 30s, was my discovery of the mid-period experimental novels: The Counterlife and Operation Shylock. Probably not a coincidence that these are also Roth’s most cosmopolitan novels—both of them in part about his unease with the state of Israel and the idea of Jews in the world outside the American drama of assimilation.

The Counterlife was probably the smartest novel I’d read that wasn’t intent on showing off how smart it was. It was, rather, a painstaking—but never heavy—laying bare of Rothian myths and devices, a writer writing his way out of the boxes that he and his readers had put him in. It took him to Tel Aviv, the West Bank Settlements, and England. Almost every feminist criticism leveled at him, before or since, was raised in Maria’s breakup letter to Nathan Zuckerman, in which she announces that she is leaving the novel. And more than that, the fundamental ethical injunction leveled against the novelist who draws ruthlessly from life: “you assured me you can’t write ‘about’ anyone, that even when you try it comes out someone else. Well insufficiently someone else to suit me.” Also, she takes aim at his penchant for the tragic: “You are forty-five years old and something of a success—it’s high time you imagined life working out. Why this preoccupation with irresolvable conflict?” One could feel the man and the writer torturing himself, setting himself the task of judging himself in the words of his own characters, and even when he gives Zuckerman the last word in the correspondence, it was an anguished (though not yet embittered) acceptance of what he had chosen to become and remain, “a Jew among Gentiles and a Gentile among Jews,” “a long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself.”

In Shylock, again, despite, or maybe because it’s also the most over-written, over-stuffed run-on novel in a career full of soliloquies, expostulations, and bravura rhetoric, as though he were secretly, or not so much, writing the whole time for theater, it became suddenly easier to feel the depth of his commitments and anxieties. He pulled himself apart. And, at the moment of writing his great novel of nation unbuilding, of the distortions wrought by Jewish nationalism, he gave himself a case of Shakespearitis that rivaled Melville’s and Hawthorne’s in their attempts to create a true American literature based on the one author that Tocqueville had reported to be in almost every American home. It’s odd to think of a writer’s nods to intertexuality, to the fact of “having been educated,” as a humanizing feature of his work, but the nerdy Roth—young Zuckerman in I Married a Communist matter-of-factly bragging about memorizing Lincoln speeches—was a more interesting alter-ego to me than the relentlessly priapic shtupper and burster of joy’s grapes against his palate fine.

For an age where more people are porn-literate than literature-literate, the nerdy Roth may prove to be his most transgressive persona in posterity, although there’s another candidate for the role. As all the tributes pour in and multiply in thousands of bytes on our screens, there’s another thing that no one has really mentioned: his political astuteness. His satirical Nixon speech, where the president refuses to step down if impeached, published in the New York Review of Books in June of 1973, makes for chilling reading for anyone still anticipating Trump’s eventual removal from office. The hatred of small-mindedness, of base opportunism, of attempts to restrict, segregate, or control is there throughout the work, but anyone who doubts his political imagination should read I Married a Communist for its sympathetic evocation of working-class Newark and Gary, Indiana, of labor organizers and Communist-inspired actors, and for its sharp portrayal of the gossip and innuendo traders who abetted McCarthyism and the smear campaigns of Trump’s professor of the dark arts, Roy Cohn. Or there are the chilling portraits of the West Bank Settler, Mordecai Lippmann, in The Counterlife and the Mossad agent Smilesburger in Operation Shylock, which trace a different perversion of the Jews with as much depth, insight, and hard judgment as any vigorous opponent of the Occupation might wish to have composed.

And then there’s the question of health care and bodily frailty, which is pretty much a constant theme in the novels. Although not a political issue when Roth first started subjecting his alter-egos to prostate tumors, neck and back pain, or heart problems, reading these novels now is to get a snapshot of a world in which the clinic is an institution that works to uphold people’s dignity when they’re at their most undignified, an element of civic grandeur even attaches to it. As much as he hated and feared illness and death, Roth at least understood and, to a certain extent, believed in medicine as a sustaining institution and possibly the only professional locus of human compassion.

Or there’s The Plot Against America which, although superficially a counterfactual historical novel about what might have happened had a Lindbergh style anti-Semite and outright Nazi sympathizer won the presidency in 1938, captures the transformation of the United States from a Republic of Hope to the post–September 11 Republic of Fear that we still inhabit. In this counterlife, without ever acknowledging it openly, Roth reimagined how he might have turned out had he not happened to have had the simple good fortune to be a Jewish child of FDR’s New Deal America: its functioning public schools and libraries, its optimism and robust economy, its concerns for the health of its citizens, the sense of an ever-expanding horizon of freedoms—sexual, intellectual, and economic—that it offered to some, though not all. In a negative way, and only through its erasure, this was as close as he’d come to expressing gratitude, and also to showing sympathy for those latecomers or outsiders who wouldn’t be so lucky.

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