“Go Sit With Uncle Phil”: My Lifetime With Philip Roth

I must have been eleven years old when I first snatched a Philip Roth novel from my Mom’s bookshelf. This was after I devoured a ribald paperback called Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, an illicit sex comedy featuring Jewish New Yorkers in various undignified erotic escapades that my Grandma Jeannette had brought up from Miami Beach. This funny book advertised itself on its cover as “the feminine rejoinder to Portnoy’s Complaint!”, which made no sense to me until I discovered in my mother’s bookshelves a slender paperback titled Portnoy’s Complaint, with a fluorescent yellow cover, ripe as a banana. Naturally, I grabbed it.

But I didn’t enjoy Portnoy’s Complaint as well as Sheila Levine. Levine was a cheerful, freewheeling urban sex comedy featuring broad characters like the shleppy but sex-starved title character and Norman, her affable standby boyfriend, who always wore leisure suits bearing flecks. Portnoy’s Complaint was something more nasty, more tormented. Instead of hapless Sheila and goofy Norman there was a deeply angry and self-loathing hero named Alex Portnoy, and a sinister, passive-aggressive female predator known as the Monkey, and then a strong woman in Israel whose sexual self-assurance renders the hero impotent. The book’s riffs on artful masturbation were funny, but there wasn’t much else for an eager 11-year-old like me to relate to. I was also put off by an undertone of hostility to both women and Christians, a heaviness that made this Jewish sex comedy feel more oppressive than liberating, more thorny than horny.

Even so, I was intrigued, and I wanted to read more Philip Roth. There were two more candy-colored paperbacks on my Mom’s shelves, and I fell in love with the second book I read, the the bright pink one, Goodbye, Columbus.

Goodbye, Columbus was a poignant novella about broken love, followed by several strong stories about modern life and Jewish identity. This had been Roth’s first published book, and it won him a National Book Award. I liked it much better than Portnoy, though it had a common stylistic footprint: a heavy, morose attitude towards life, striated with whip-smart sarcasm. I also began to note Roth’s method in locating his stories in seamy, smelly Newark, New Jersey — right across the river from shining Manhattan! It was clear that he used this setting to reflect the cultural alienation of his suffering characters, his male Jewish heroes, and I liked the consistency with which he used this setting.

I then dug eagerly into the third Good-and-Plenty colored Roth paperback from my Mom’s shelves, The Breast. At this, unfortunately, my newfound enthusiasm screeched to a halt.

The title had obvious allure, but I was severely disappointed by the awkward, shapeless faux-fable about a bookish, horny Jewish college professor who turns into a giant female breast. The concept worked as a joke, but it wasn’t enough for a book, and the clumsiness of the execution seemed to me to symbolize the confusion of the author. It felt like a lazy, obligatory performance. I was barely at the age of Portnoyesque puberty myself yet when I read The Breast, but I could spot a poor Kafka imitation when I saw one, and I was already starting to lose interest in Philip Roth.

Ahh, Philip Roth. He sometimes feels as familiar to me as my own Freudian id, and in this sense I’ve felt ambivalently about him since my earliest days as a reader. In fact, I have a weird subconcious sense that I have always known Philip Roth, that I totally remember him coming by the house.

He never had, but he seemed to me exactly like several of my parents’ friends or co-workers, and I still have trouble judging his literary valuation today — a topic currently in the news, since a few weeks ago the aging lion suddenly announced his retirement — because he seems so familiar, so much like a domineering older member of my own family. “Go sit with Uncle Phil”. I could easily picture him in our house at Thanksgiving, grubbing for a choice spot on the turkey line.

There’s another reason I’ve always carried this underlying sense of Philip Roth as a virtual family member: it happens that I am a Roth. My paternal grandmother Clara Roth, who became Clara Stein, was born to Yitzhak Roth in a shtetl called Potok Zloty in Galicia. “Roth” is a very common Jewish name, and I have no reason to think I’m related to Philip Roth, though Wikipedia says that he is also descended from Galician Jews. On the other hand, my Brooklyn ancestors didn’t know from Newark, New Jersey, and millions of American Jews trace their families to Galicia, so I’m pretty sure I’m not related to Philip Roth, and in fact I always held out more hope for a relation to Chaim Potok. Anyway, here are Yitzhak and Clara Roth of Potok Zloty:

I was very conscious of my identity as an American Jew as a kid, and in fact not just Philip Roth but all Jewish-American writers felt to me like noisy older relatives. My very favorites were wise old Grandpa Isaac Bashevis, who told stories so beautifully, and sassy Aunt Cynthia Ozick, who I could always count on for a wisecrack when the goings got too pious.

But then there was haughty Grandpa Saul, who talked a little too fancy for my tastes, and then there were the loud uncles, always waving drinks and arguing around the piano: Uncle Norman, bullying everyone around; weird Uncle Joseph, always mumbling and you could never tell what he was saying. And then, yeah, there he is again … grumpy Uncle Philip, sitting there munching on a roast beef Ritz cracker, probably thinking creepy thoughts about one or another of the women in the room.

I didn’t really love any of the loud Uncles, not Philip or Norman or Joseph. As I got older, I began mapping out my own hopeful future career as a brilliant literary novelist, and tried to keep up with the best writers of my time for inspiration. But the writers I looked to were the younger, fresher experimental/countercultural authors: Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, John Irving, Paul Auster, Bret Easton Ellis. They all seemed more tuned in with current trends in fiction than, say, Philip Roth, who already seemed old guard by the 1980s. By the 90s I had pretty much stopped thinking about Philip Roth at all.

But Philip Roth didn’t stop writing. Though I didn’t pick up any of his books through the 1980s and 90s, I often noticed that Uncle Phil kept turning out new books and getting decent, if slightly bored, reviews. I also noticed that many of his new books featured an obviously self-referential character named Nathan Zuckerman. I became curious enough about this multivolume metafictional experiment that I eventually read The Ghost Writer, the first of the Nathan Zuckerman books.

I liked Ghost Writer a bit, though I suppose I liked the idea of it more than the reading experience. The notion of a surviving Anne Frank, aging anonymously in a woodsy literary hermitage, was thrilling. The idea of a gentle young Jewish writer who is “not so nice and polite” when he writes fiction was thrilling too. At the same time, the prose felt labored and clunky, as Roth’s prose usually did, and I didn’t feel excited enough about the novel to pick up another Nathan Zuckerman book, though I occasionally thought about doing so.

But I read his autobiography The Facts as soon as it came out, because I always love a literary memoir. I found The Facts absolutely fascinating, especially the long chapter about his terrible first marriage to a domineering woman, which explained some of the sexual paranoia that dominates his fiction. Or, I wondered, did he marry a romantic predator because he was psychologically predetermined to search out this type of relationship, and to mine the experience for literary value? This seemed to me the biggest question his books raised, and I didn’t know the answer. Regardless, The Facts was now the second Philip Roth book I really liked a lot, along with Goodbye, Columbus. (I never found a third Roth book to add to this set).

I went through another transformation as a reader in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. I was now a literary blogger, and had recently begun socializing with other literary bloggers and book critics, which gave me a more immediate awareness of current literary trends than I’d ever had before. Philip Roth, I noticed, was now spoken of in hushed tones. He was a genius; important. I would occasionally hear, around the mid-to-late 2000s, that Philip Roth and John Updike were the two greatest living American writers.

I agreed with half of this. I had a gigantic amount of respect for John Updike, though I’d also had a rocky passage with his work. His paperback novels had been in my Mom’s bookshelf too, and I’d had mixed feelings about the various books I’d read as a kid. But I gradually came to an almost revelatory level of appreciation for John Updike, the result of late-career books like Gertrude and Claudius and Self-Consciousness, appreciative rereadings of classics like Couples and Marry Me, and constant enjoyment of his awesome, wide-ranging book reviews in the New Yorker. If I could come to a mature appreciation of John Updike, I thought, maybe I was also overdue for a new appreciation of Philip Roth, so I read one of his latest novels, The Plot Against America.

The rediscovery didn’t pan out. I couldn’t help staring at The Plot Against America, a nostalgo-phantasmagorical descent into Jewish political paranoia, the way I might stare at a bloody car wreck. But I couldn’t imagine what Philip Roth thought he was achieving by regressing into a childlike state of Jewish paranoia during an era — the George W. Bush invades Iraq era — when worldwide ethnic and religious paranoia was already at a hysterical peak. I could only wonder, yet again, what had gone wrong with Uncle Phil?

And, why did these weird books make him so increasingly popular? Who was he writing them for? Even at what clearly seemed to me like a clumsy decade in Roth’s long literary career, his reputation among mainstream literary critics was simply blossoming, blooming. He was also now extremely successful. He had transformed Nathan Zuckerman into a profitable cottage industry, and was putting out slender, cranky, grumpy “old man” novels every single year, with depressing consistency. A widely publicized New York Times list of the 25 best novels of the last 25 years made a big splash for Philip Roth; more of his books were in the top 25 than anyone else’s.

I had always cringed at the idea that Philip Roth was the best living Jewish-American writer. Now I was beginning to hear that he was the best American writer! Above Updike, above Vonnegut! This began to make me very upset.

I had a public temper tantrum about Philip Roth on my blog in the summer of 2006. This was the first time I dared to go public with my feelings about Philip Roth, and I feared it would make me an outcast among my literary friends.

The temper tantrum was prompted by an email exchange with a fellow blogger, after I mentioned to him that I’d just seen a copy of the latest Philip Roth annual product Everyman at a bookstore.”I’m dying to read that book!” my friend emailed me. “Why?” I asked him. “What do you expect to find different from all the other Philip Roth books?”

I then spent a week on Literary Kicks listing our five top overrated writers: Philip Roth, Joan Didion, William Vollmann, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem. I had, it turned out, quite a lot of baggage to unload on Uncle Phil:

In Roth’s world, it’s the ones we know best and love most who are trying to oppress and destroy us: our parents, our friends and neighbors, our lovers, our children. This is a harsh and depressing world view, and while I don’t begrudge Roth the right to call the shots the way he sees them, I do not find his theme very universal. Even less do I find it edifying. This is why I must disagree when I hear him described as a great writer of our age.

Philip Roth’s world view is essentially childish. His most successful writings are about young people, but the formula turns sickly when his characters grow into adults, because the existential self-actualization of a mature adult is beyond his scope. The classic Roth character is terrified, helpless and about to throw a big fit. By the time his characters get old and prepare to die, as in the new Everyman, they may become resigned, but there is little evidence that they ever become mature.

In this sense, there is a great difference between Roth and an author he is frequently compared to, John Updike. There are similarities as well — they both emerged in the late 50s and hit their strides during the Vietnam War era, when Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Updike’s Couples perched on the bestseller list. Both writers carried forward the risque literary tradition of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, but Updike’s literary vision feels expansive where Roth’s feels repressive. A look at the way they conduct themselves as literary celebrities brings home this point.

John Updike seems infused with generosity and curiosity. He publishes short stories and poems along with novels, and he is also, by any measure, one of our top literary critics. His characters inhabit an amazing variety of cultural backgrounds, some more convincingly than others, though the attempt is always admirable: an Arab-American terrorist, a Brazilian beach bum, a Danish Queen, an African politician. Philip Roth’s fictional universe, on the other hand, is entirely peopled by, hmm, let’s see … Jewish families in Newark, Jewish families who left Newark, famous Jewish writers, famous Jewish writers from Newark, and famous Jewish writers whose families left Newark. Then there are some characters who resemble Philip Roth.

I could forgive Philip Roth’s introverted consistency (no short stories, no literary criticism, just one novel after another) if his writing didn’t feel similarly churlish. He is a talented storyteller and knows how to paint a key scene, but his narrative voice is often surprisingly clumsy and obvious. I don’t want to dwell too much on the Updike-Roth comparison, but it must be said that Philip Roth is not in John Updike’s league as a prose stylist. Roth doesn’t even attempt the beautiful turns, the sparkling observations, the sharp-edged parentheticals that characterize a typical John Updike sentence.

I must make this clear: I really do like Philip Roth. I just can’t abide by the current meme that calls him a relevant spokesperson for our current time. I’m especially bothered by the fact that Roth is often called a representative voice for modern American Jews; I’m a member of that group, and Roth’s bitter message of fundamental separatism does not speak for me.

It helped to get this off my chest, but after I posted this on my blog I felt haunted by a sense that I was not being honest with myself about the psychosomatic or quasi-personal roots of my dislike for Uncle Phil. I tried to temper my public criticism, even though I found myself invariably irritated when he gave an interview. He gave a lot of interviews during these years, speaking incessantly about his depression, his physical ailments, his struggles with moral turpitude. He seemed in these interviews to feel no enthusiasm for emerging writers or, for that matter, any writers at all other than himself. He was invariably cranky about the Internet, and cranky about the world.

A few weeks ago when he announced his retirement I decided to dive in and challenge my conclusions about Philip Roth one last time. I began reading an acclaimed late-period Nathan Zuckerman novel that I’d heard was a masterpiece: American Pastoral. I finished the novel two weeks ago.

Unlike my encounters with The Breast and Plot Against America, this attempt at getting back in touch with Uncle Phil was not a disaster. I liked the novel a lot. I didn’t like the way the early chapters kept trying to pound the impression into my head that a character named “Swede” Levov was a wondrously admirable guy (why is Uncle Phil always yelling?) — but the book saved itself and then some with a gorgeous, hilarious long ending sequence that reminded me of the sensitive comedy of Goodbye, Columbus. The plot turned out to be a searingly emotional and satisfying one, and in parts American Pastoral made it clear just how powerful and skillful Philip Roth sometimes can be.

As he gets older, as I get older, I want to come to terms with Uncle Phil. However, I still don’t think Philip Roth is Nobel Prize material (and I notice that, year after year, the Nobel Prize Committee agrees with me). I still like to make fun of him whenever he appears in the news, as during a recent ceremony with Barack Obama in which he was photographed looking like a nervous duck.

But, look … Philip Roth is a very smart and talented writer, and he has pursued a vision of his own with gargantuan persistence for more than fifty years, for longer (barely longer) than I have been alive. My ambivalence about Philip Roth might be the same as the whole world’s ambivalence about Philip Roth (after all, you know, it’s not just me who feels this way — ask Eileen Myles). My love for Philip Roth might also be the same as the world’s love for Philip Roth.

I do think I understand him well. I don’t think he’s the greatest writer in the world, or the greatest American writer, or the greatest Jewish-American writer. But I guess I do love the guy. He wrote a few amazing books. And he’s my Uncle Phil.

3 Responses

  1. Loved this!
    Loved this!

    My favorite literary criticism is always personal. Otherwise I find myself asking why the critic thinks I should react the same way he did, when my reading is necessarily influenced by my own experience. Portnoy was the first Roth I stole from my roommate’s shelf, and I loved the adolescent parts, especially the portrait of the mother. I find him most interesting when he is less interested in his Jewishness and more in the ways he is like anybody else with a human body, ambition, shame, fear, etc. Or maybe I just like dirty books (The Dying Animal). His world does seem small but that is one reason I like him, like Henry Miller and, in my opinion, Saul Bellow, he explores a narcissistic tendency many of us share, and are ashamed of. He expresses impolite desires and fears that we well be judged for sharing in public, unless it is to praise the latest book from Philip Roth.

  2. I think I know why I never
    I think I know why I never heard of Philip Roth — thanks to your blog — and made it a point to pick up a couple of his books to see what I’ve been missing.

    This Jew from New York City himself can do no less.

  3. I found your comments rich
    I found your comments rich and useful. It confirmed a feeling I have had ever since I read Goodbye Columbus, which is that he never wrote again with such relevance and insight. I felt guilty for decades, not wanting to read anything he produced after Portnoy…Portnoy bored me. I believe it took Roth down a narcissistic path he never left. He kept trying to mine his Newarkish roots and found there was nothing new left to say. Meanwhile, I had moved on to an array of writes with a richer world to share…from IB Singer to Malamud to Bellow, worlds not limited by their own lives, esp. Singer. I can go back to his tales again and again with the same anticipation I feel eating good food.

    And Roth’s own life took a tailspin, too. I now feel I can trust what you trusted here…my/your own instincts about whether someone or some book is finally satisfying enough to recommend.


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