Exit, Pursued by Roth

Philip Roth’s Shakespeherian-titled Exit Ghost has certainly been kicking up the chatter. Rhian Ellis likes it and so do David Ulin and Sarfraz Manzoor. But Michael Weiss doesn’t, nor do Ted Gioia or James Marcus. The Elegant Variation highlights the chiaroscuro reaction with this Compare and Contrast entry, featuring Carlin Romano’s “no” next to Bharat Tandon’s “yes”. Katharine Weber maintains her undying admiration for the author, and Ladbrokes gives him 7-1 odds for the Nobel Prize.

Me? I can’t stand the new book (having skimmed about 5 pages), which won’t surprise anyone who remembers that I named Roth one of the five most overrated writers of 2006. But being an overrated writer is not the same thing as being a bad writer, and in fact I have very conflicted feelings about Philip Roth (as I also do about Joan Didion and William Vollmann; I really dislike only two of my 2006 overrated writers, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem). I was completely confounded by The Plot Against America, which I found utterly fascinating and memorable but also painfully insular and inexcusably sloppy. I loved the idea of The Breast but didn’t see that the book had any purpose other than to instantiate the idea. I found Portnoy’s Complaint surprisingly dated and unfunny. I loved The Ghost Writer when I first read it, but that’s because I assumed it was going to be the only Zuckerman novel — if I’d known Roth was creating a golem I might not have approved so much.

This points to a big basic problem with the Zuckerman series: who can possibly read all of these books? I haven’t kept up with the many, many other narratives that lead up to Exit Ghost and neither have you, so both of us must approach this new book (if we approach it at all) with a feeling of distance and unfamiliarity. We’re out of touch with the back story by the time we reach page one. Why is this good?

Other novelists have pleased readers with recurring characters, of course. Updike’s given us Rabbit and Bech and the Maples, but something about the Zuckerman project feels less palatable than any of Updike’s creations, and I wonder if Roth’s embrace of gigantism amounts to an expression of hostility towards his audience. I remember reading a biography of the Beach Boys that suggested a psychological explanation for Brian Wilson’s weight gain: he wanted to be so big that nobody could “eat him alive”. Somehow this makes me think of Philip Roth.

Yet I will always feel a warmth and a familial affection for Roth. I mainly criticize him because I can’t stand the idea that younger readers and wannabe writers will feel they have to slog through his entire life’s work based on his stellar reputation. He’s a great odd duck, but he’s too cranky and emotionally stingy to be my kind of literary hero, and I can think of many more inspiring literary heroes for young writers to follow.

2. The next entry in the Does Literary Fiction Suffer From Dysfunctional Pricing? series will have to wait till next week. I’m still working on it.

3. Cost of Freedom is an anthology of stories about people in the American peace movement edited by Whitney Trettien and Mike Palacek. Not a bad concept for a book.

4. Jacksonville, Florida spoken-word poet Al Letson has won the Public Radio Talent Quest.

5. You can hear a raucous Ken Kesey interview from 1999 at Chris Comer Radio.

6. Fiction Volante: Lo-Fi Fiction For Today’s Electro-Web. Yes.

One Response

  1. Interesting AssessmentApropos
    Interesting Assessment

    Apropos Roth – I liked When She Was Good, and laughed out loud at Portnoy. Tried to read more and gave up. I have one problem with Roth, Updike (save Rabbit and Bech), and their ilk: they bore me. And that overrides all other considerations.

    Interesting parallel between Roth and James Baldwin: Roth’s When She Was Good has no Jewish characters. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room has no Blacks, including the first-person narrator. Neither author had jumped on his respective bandwagon at that time and, in my opinion, produced better work because of it.

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