Philip Roth once wrote a great, great book. It’s called Goodbye, Columbus and it’s his first book, published in 1959. The title novella is a hilarious, piercing tale of a doomed love affair between a poor bookish urban Jew and a spoiled Jewish-American Princess from the suburbs. The story reaches its sublime peak when the hero visits his girlfriend’s palatial home and gapes, astonished, while her college-educated brother sits in his bedroom and listens over and over to his “Columbus record”, a souvenir from his beloved Ohio State University. Goodbye, Columbus is one of my favorite books, and, yes, it establishes Philip Roth as a superb writer.
Unfortunately, as I said, this book was written in 1959. The “You can listen to my Columbus record” scene was not only the peak of this novella but also the peak of Roth’s entire literary career. Did fame spoil Philip Roth? Maybe, because a paranoid, cranky dislike of humanity began to dominate his writing by the early sixties. I’m not sure what went wrong between his first book of short stories and the later books, though it may have had something to do with the difficult personal struggles he eventually chronicled in an autobiography, The Facts.
Paranoia became Roth’s central theme, and it permeates most of his novels, from Portnoy’s Complaint to American Pastoral to The Plot Against America. Roth’s paranoia is different from the cold high-tech creepiness of Don DeLillo or the proud anti-establishment defiance of Ken Kesey. 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.
I have spent a lot of time with Roth’s books over the years. Sometimes I like them, sometimes I don’t. Portnoy’s Complaint must have seemed revolutionary in its own time, but it’s a bumpy read today. The Breast? A one-joke book. Roth turned a literary corner with The Ghost Writer, introducing a new altar ego named Nathan Zuckerman and a more seasoned, measured authorial voice. I liked this book, but I could not endure the endless sequels. The only other later Roth I care about is The Facts, a searing and painful autobiography that includes a raw account of his terrible first marriage, which is instructive reading for any husband who feels like a secret victim of a dominating wife (this drama played out just as young Roth’s literary career skyrocketed, and the ordeal may help explain his signature sense of paranoia).
In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov wrote about a French ape in a zoo who was coaxed into producing a drawing with charcoal on paper. The ape, Nabokov tells us, was only able to draw the bars of his own cage. Philip Roth, as far as I can see, has spent the last forty years doing the same thing.
But read Goodbye Columbus.
What’s the point of naming overrated writers if I’m not going to take on some Goliaths? I’ll be naming the five most overrated writers of our time here at LitKicks all week, one per day, and I promise I won’t waste your time with easy targets like Curtis Sittenfeld or Jonathan Safran Foer. I’m going for a truly beloved author tomorrow, a bicoastal sacred cow who has recently capped a long career with a triumphant book. I like the recent book, but I find the long career underwhelming. Check back tomorrow to see who I’m talking about.