Favorite Books (1): Letting Go by Philip Roth


LETTING GO is Philip Roth’s brilliant first novel, published when he was only 29 years old. Even at that young age, Roth did nothing by half measures. How ambitious and how clear his calling, even then! He unabashedly swings for the home run.

It’s a book that’s sometimes overlooked when discussing Roth, yet it already contains all that elements that he would be lauded for in his later books, without the patina of unconscious self-parody that marred some of that later work.

The book is a portrait of a young novelist, an English professor, and the two women with whom he falls in love. I’m going to skip talking about the theme, or even the story itself, in order to focus primarily on what can be learned about writing from this book.

Roth is rudely audacious in his scene construction: where anyone else would have turned off the narrative camera long before, he keeps the film rolling and rolling and rolling, mercilessly, capturing the whole arc of an event or conversation. He lets it run even as it’s bitterly petering out, describing the inevitable inconclusive conclusion. Because for Roth, that is where the truth is, as much as in any climax—the inevitable compromises and disappointments that are constructed in the negotiation of any relationship.

And Roth does the same at the other end of a scene—he begins much earlier than the climax. The characters talk, talk, talk, and only at length does a scene finally take shape;  another writer, perhaps, would have cut out all the seemingly extraneous lead-in, and gotten to the core long before. But for Roth, this is the core. Life is precisely the extra stuff beyond the bottom line: life is the decoration, the justification, the innovation, the defenses, and the blockades, that are put up against the core. That is what character is.

Roth has a wonderful eye for detail. And his ear is good enough to rival the best of the comic playwrights. He is, it seems to me, a very theatrical writer; it is surprising to me that he has never written for the stage. Roth once said in an interview that in New York as a young man, he hung around actors, and he often did imitations to make the actors laugh. This makes sense, because in his writing, the man can mimic voices as easily and accurately as if he were Rich Little.

And has anyone written children better than Roth has done here? It’s probably the only time in the whole Roth canon that young children play a major role in one of his books. I tend to think of Roth as the dissector of adult neurosis, but his look into the mind of the two young children here is tremendous. Not only the exterior actions of the children, but the interior monologues as well are deeply satisfying.

Roth, however, in his epic ambition, does stumble once in this book. For some critics, it’s a fatal mistake; I don’t feel it’s fatal—the book is just too stuffed with goodies to have it discounted because of one mistake. However, his stumble, born out of ambition, is a great lesson for writers. He makes almost exactly the same mistake that Alfred Hitchcock famously made in his film, Sabotage. In one scene of Sabotage, a young boy is unwittingly carrying a package that contains a bomb. The audience is in suspense, but inwardly it feels safe; after all, the audience knows the convention is that in this kind of a movie little boys don’t get blown up by bombs. But the bomb goes off anyway. And at that point, not only has the bomb exploded, but the audience’s trust has exploded as well. The audience will no longer follow the narrative line. Because if that action is permitted, then anything is permitted, and the audience is no longer willing to go on the journey with the director. Hitchcock had betrayed his audience.  He later said to Francis Truffaut, “I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb…[He] was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.”

In Letting Go, Roth has that same moment of overreaching for effect that Hitchcock had. Maybe it is an ambitious beginners’ mistake: trying too hard to be different, breaking convention too soon, and in the wrong way. But once Roth missteps towards the end of the novel, the last sixty pages of the journey loses its fizz. It’s a relationship where finally the reader is merely tolerating the author because prior betrayal has frozen all emotion. The reader feels: You can’t play with my emotions like that. You betrayed me. I can’t allow you to manipulate me like that again.

But ending aside, reading Letting Go is a master class in the art of writing. Every detail is fresh; every character, from the principles to the smallest walk-on, speaks in a distinct, honest, and often very humorous voice. If Roth had written this after Portnoy, perhaps it would have been hailed as his best book. Unfortunately, you have to hunt a bit to find a copy of it nowadays, but it’s certainly a book worth hunting for.

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