Philip Roth’s many phases


Time flies faster as you grow older. One day you wake up and read Tom Wolfe is dead. Blink a few times and there goes Philip Roth, too.

I was drawn to Roth’s fiction indirectly, around the time he was helping introduce “Writers From the Other Europe” to American audiences. I remember reading Milan Kundera’s short stories in Esquire and thinking that Roth had great taste, his own work was probably worth a good look.

I knew Roth had spent time defending himself against people who used his fiction as evidence that he was a Jew-hating Jew, a sexual deviant, a misogynist and worse. The sort of dreary people who automatically equate fictional points of view with an author’s real-life beliefs, and assume his/her characters are nothing but thinly veiled real-life characters.

“Wow, I wonder if he’s really describing so-and-so?” they will ask, or “Is that sneaky bastard writing about me?”

I knew he’d tried to make peace with detractors who said his short-story collection Goodbye, Columbus cast Jews in a bad light and that, years later, he’d provoked them all over again with his breakthrough novel Portnoy’s Complaint, whose young, sex-obsessed, guilt-ridden Jewish narrator calls himself “the Raskolnikov of jerking off.”

I didn’t know he’d go through many more phases as a novelist, experimenting with the form, becoming more productive as he aged, refining his acidic sense of humor, poking fun at critics by inventing protagonists who closely resembled him — Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh — or actually bore his name. (In Operation Shylock, the “real” Philip Roth chases a Philip Roth imposter all over the map and addresses one of Roth’s favorite concerns: that our increasingly chaotic world is making it harder to write “realistic” fiction that’s as bizarre and unpredictable as real life.)

Or that he’d go on a creative tear in his 60s and 70s that resulted in major works like Sabbath’s Theater, an eloquent rant whose aging protagonist definitely does not go gentle into that good night.

Or that his concern about the durability of fiction would culminate in his last major success, The Plot Against America, in which aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt and becomes president in the World War II years.

Last year the New Yorker asked Roth a point-blank question: Does Donald Trump outstrip the novelist’s imagination?

Roth’s email response: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”

I know what he meant. It’s much easier to picture Charles Lindbergh, a flawed hero, as president than a cartoonish con man like Trump in the role. But I’ll bet Roth would have done justice to the Trump era in his fiction if he’d been born a decade or two later.

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