Author Philip Roth died yesterday. I can’t think of a novelist who has had more of an effect on me than Roth. Indeed, I don’t think I fully understood what a novel could be, and what a writer did, before I read Roth. When I am writing and I can’t figure out what to do, I ask myself WWRD–what would Roth do. The work ethic, the imagination, the dead-on ear for human speech and obfuscation, the love of language, all made him my favorite American author.
Above is an interview Roth did in 2004, where he talks about the obligations of writing. He also makes a startling prediction about the fate of novels in the near future. I hope he is wrong.
Before Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth had already written two very accomplished novels: Letting Go and When She was Good. I’ve previously written about my appreciation of the former novel, and When She was Good is an equally intriguing, though quite different book.
In this novel unpleasant, not one of the eight major characters, neither man nor woman, is someone with whom the reader can sympathize. It is Philip Roth’s Ship of Fools. Each character is deeply flawed, but not in the grand tragic manner—for their lives are far too small, shallow, and petty to be tragic. Their problem is that they are ordinary human beings trying to make a life, dealing the best they can with their inevitable inadequacies.
The novel, set in small town, post-war America of the nineteen-fifties, describes the life of Roy Basart, just back from the service, his future uncertain, a young man of more desire than ability. He is at that awkward age in his early twenties when he is expected to become serious, find a career, marry, and make a family. He meets and marries a young woman, Lucy Nelson, whose life has been shaped by her alcoholic father. Lucy vows that she will never be the weak-willed woman her mother was, and that her child will have what she never had—a stable home, with a father who earns a steady living. But it is exactly her impatient and uncompromising will that leads her and all in her path to misery.
For her husband Roy is no hero, but an ordinary man with a wandering will who dreams of becoming an artistic photographer, though his head is full of cliches and other people’s ideas. His parents are strait-laced paragons of local virtue, emblematic of small town prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Lucy’s father, the ne’er-do-well alcoholic, beats Lucy’s forgiving mother, and in the defining action of the book, Lucy calls the police on her father, vowing that she will never forgive him.
Roth’s power as a writer is evident from the very beginning. His method of turning on the tape recorder and letting it run is in full effect here, as it was in his previous novel, Letting Go. Roth lets his characters talk—and talk and talk—but it is his brilliance as a writer that it is this talk that reveals everything we need to know about a character’s personality. The talk here is not just the talk between people, but the self-talk used to convince themselves. More than anything else, this book is about the power that we have for deceiving ourselves. There is not a character in the book who is not full of delusion, misconceptions fueled and propagated by what they say to themselves. Talk, for Roth, is not so much to persuade others, but to persuade ourselves of our own goodness, and especially of the reasonableness of the compromises we’ve had to make. In Shakespeare, it takes the most brilliant evocative words and imagery to persuade others; in Roth, it only takes the most mundane and unimaginative words repeated endlessly to persuade ourselves. The cliches that fill our self-talk are what allow us to continue our self-deceptions.
Not that the characters aren’t transparently foolish to others as well. Lucy can barely contain her sarcasm at the hypocrisy and blindness of her family. She is merciless in her dissection of their faults and expects them to live up to higher standards. She demands that they exert themselves more forcefully. But in her own relentless expression of her will, she comes to disaster. In her uncompromising demand for her own way at all times, she drives away the people closest to her, including her husband and child.
Roth clearly believes that it is inhuman to expect people to live without compromises, to believe in one’s own certainty, and to demand that others live that way, too. But Roth does not let the other side off the hook either. Lucy has good reason to be disgusted at the mediocrity and slackness of others. For much of the book, Lucy seems to be the most reasonable character out of all of them. It is really only in the last part of the novel where Roth chooses sides, and then he comes down heavily against Lucy. As if the reader might miss the point, Roth, in an uncharacteristically overdetermined way, has Lucy die in a frozen patch of snow, a result of her unrelenting obsession. It’s a misstep, I think, by Roth: in real life, such situations don’t usually lead to such histrionic endings, but continue with the dull repetition of recriminations and petty bickering on both sides. It’s surprising that Roth doesn’t just allow that, after being such a faithful observer of his characters’ lives.
While the book is a tragedy of personality, it also exists within a specific social and political milieu. It contains more than a little influence of Sinclair Lewis’s 1920s Babbit and Main Street: rural and suburban America coming of age under capitalism; however, in this later work, the post-world War II context is clearly the McCarthy era with its stilted vision of success, and its strictures on what people may say to themselves and others. The unspoken subtext of the novel is the inability to achieve the American dream: the dream is a fake, shored up by anti-communism. Roy has some inklings that maybe socialism is not as bad as everyone says, but it is no more than a vague thought, ultimately just a talking point for himself, another excuse for his own personal failures.
Strikingly, this is one of the few books by Roth where Jews and Jewish culture play no obvious part. Still, in a way, it’s a parable of Old Testament judgement versus New Testament mercy. Lucy represents the vengeful willful God of the Old Testament, while her grandfather, mother, and husband lean towards the charity and forgiveness of the New Testament. They are in a sense competing strategies for survival. But both ways under American capitalism in this novel lead to tragedy. There is no way to be. Neither ruthless will, nor temperate charity, can insure happiness or survival.
Because Roth as a novelist is as uncompromising as Lucy is as a person, the book can feel pitiless. Roth refuses to turn his head away from what he sees and hears. But the skills with which the 33-year-old Roth delineated the knots of relationship is bracing in its own way. To lay it all out on the table without flinching is a powerful achievement, and left this reader, at least, more sober and in a more reflective state about his own life.
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.