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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Philip Roth - Nemesis

Often in life we are encountered with life-altering choices.  That's simple enough to state, as it is to say that those choices make us who we are.  Philip Roth's "Nemesis" is a novel that deals directly with the life choices of one Bucky Cantor, physical education teacher, and the community that he serves.  The problem--stated clearly from page one--is the mid-1940s polio epidemic that ravished the Newark ethnic communities.  Cantor is a complex character, with expectations for himself that are beyond impossible to achieve, and this settles the crux of the entire novel.  Orphaned at birth, he is brought up by a pair of "Old World" Jewish grandparents.  His grandfather influences Bucky in good ways, but that influence carries to such extreme that it damages Bucky's future before it can actually take off.

The summer playground Bucky Cantor runs in the intense heat of the season becomes a breeding ground for polio infections.  Before one quarter of the novel there are over 10 infections and various deaths.  As a role model of the community, Bucky Cantor begins to take on too many roles for a single man--he worries over whether or not he should keep the playground open, as two of his students died of polio.  It's the start of Bucky taking on responsibility for not only the spread of polio in the community, but also the beginning of his clash with the God of his lineage, a God he deems cruel and sadistic.

Bucky is in love with Marcia Steinberg, the daughter of a physician Bucky loves and respect.  Even the good doctor cannot convince Bucky that it is not his responsibility about the spread, but the effort goes to waste, "We may not know much about polio," Doctor Steinberg states, "but we know that [it doesn't spread as Bucky thinks]. Kids everywhere play hard out of doors all summer long, and even in an epidemic it's a very small percentage who become infected with the disease. And a very small percentage of those who get seriously ill from it. And a very small percentage of those who die--death results from respiratory paralysis, which is relatively rare. Every child who gets a headache doesn't come down with paralytic polio. That's why it's important not to exaggerate the danger and to carry on normally. You have nothing to feel guilty about. That's a natural reaction sometimes, but in your case it's not justified."  Bucky heeds the judgment of the good doctor but only for a few days.  His girlfriend is away at a camp in the woods, and she is begging for Bucky to resign his job at the inner-city playground and come to work at the camp.  And Bucky does (out of utterly impulse of the moment) quit his job and heads out to the camp in the woods.  The problem is that Bucky takes with him not only the responsibility he feels for the polio epidemic, but also the "fact" that he betrays the boys who were depending on him to open the playground.  Here one can see what is the key to Bucky's personality... this unrealistic, beyond human sense of duty and responsibility inculcated on him by his late grandfather.

Once the polio cases at the camp surge, Bucky gets tested and is certified by a doctor that he had been carrying the polio, and even though it could not be proven that it was Bucky who brought it to the camp (let alone the playground) Bucky takes on it like a cross to carry--it is all his fault, he convinces himself and takes on even more responsibility by sparring with a God he again deems evil and sadistic.  Polio does destroy everything Bucky Cantor wanted for his life--a relationship, a career, a healthy life. He becomes paralyzed and shuns his girlfriend when she comes to visit him, telling her it was better for her to not be engaged, let alone married, to a gimp.  This is a self-imposed martyrdom that Bucky (while not showing it publicly) seems to regret, a regret he turns into anger at the unfairness of a so-called fair God.

This is a story about choice, of course, but it is also a story about how our on unrealistic expectations of ourselves can deteriorate us until every single aspect of our lives become alien and distorted.  It is a very good novel for various reasons.  First, the narrative is well-paced and clear.  Secondly, the characters are all characters the reader can relate to and embrace, even when the decisions are as painful as Bucky's.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Philip Roth -- Exit Ghost

I enjoyed reading the tale of Nathan Zuckerman, as I have enjoyed the other Roth books about this colorful and complex protagonist.  The story is less a Rip Van Winkle tale (as otherwise introduced in the book's dust cover) but rather a tale of a man who returns to an environment he had left 11 years ago and he returns much changed (unlike Rip Van Winkle who after all the years remains the same lazy bum).  Zuckerman's escape from New York City took him to a reclusive bungalow in Berkshire is interrupted as he is in need of a medical procedure, but as he returns (and perhaps a bit too rushed) people from his past begin to magically appear before him.  The most prominent of these is Amy Bellette, the former lover of one E.I. Lonoff, a writer Zuckerman had much admired when he was just starting out as a writer.  The scene when Zuckerman sees Amy again for the first time in almost 50 years is a bit rushed--I don't say this as criticism but rather to just point out the event that precipitates quite a few others.  At any rate, Zuckerman remembers her voice and that is what unsettles his return to the city.

Exit Ghost is a novel of various themes.  To be sure, Zuckerman returns to the city in fear of what this return might mean for his future, but the Nathan Zuckerman of the past, the adventurous, daring man of younger years still breaks through the veil of fear.  He's not, however, exactly holding on stubbornly to his youth.  A prostate problem is only significant to him in as much as it disrupts his daily routines in his solitude--a swim in the local swimming pool is out of the question because he has become incontinent and wearing a diaper of sorts.  A procedure to alleviate this is what drives him out of his solitude and into the city.  He can't wait to return to Berkshire but in a moment of impulse he wonders if he can, in fact, survive the city and its demands.  Out of the same impulse he finds a classified ad by a couple who is looking to swap their Manhattan apartment for a place just like Zuckerman's.  When he visits the apartment to meet the young couple, he immediately becomes taken by the young woman and thus the novel turns to a Zuckerman less in control of his desires and wishing for a youth never to be had again.  Instead, there's a series of "He/She" dialogue that he writes on hotel stationary that fulfills the outcome he desires from the connection to this young, beautiful woman.  In reality, Jamie is cold and terse, even rude to Zuckerman's advances but he persists on the hunt regardless of the outcome.  It is here that the novel becomes even faster paced.  I am not sure if all the pieces fit in as well as Roth intended--perhaps I lack the understanding of technique in fiction to see why these connections are made.  Zuckerman becomes the target of a young man (an ex-boyfriend of Jamie's) who is trying to write a biography of E.I. Lonoff, a writer Zuckerman is willing to protect from this ill-timed (Lonoff's work has been forgotten and Zuckerman doesn't really want it resurrected by a controversial bio).  The biographer, Kliman, is in "possession" of a terrible secret from Lonoff's youth that he is looking to corroborate and publish as the centerpiece of the biography.  From here on, the novel is a zig-zagging of connections and characters clashing.  Zuckerman wants to call off the deal to swap living places with Jamie and her husband, but is unable to gather the courage to do so.  The resolution is quite unclear and scattered, and Zuckerman closes the account with a final "He/She" dialogue that reveals little about his relationship to Jamie Logan (other than what he imagines) and about his own fading self.

Where Exit Ghost fails (and I say this with all due respect) is in the overly-political themes, all about the post 9/11 and the events that followed, primarily the invasion of Iraq and the election of 2004.  The novel was published in 2007, and along with "The Plot Against America" stand out for their anti-Republican leanings.  While I don't object to this in any specific way, it strikes me as an indirect way of taking advantage of the political climate of the 2000s which was neither as one-sided as it was clearly defined.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

Philip Roth - The Plot Against America

It takes an immeasurable amount of talent to pull off a historical novel, and even more so when that history is turned upside down.  This is precisely what Philip Roth masterfully does with "The Plot Against America."  The story of the 1940 election has FDR losing to a Republican... none other than Charles A. Lindbergh.  The  novel was published in 2004, midst the G.W. Bush bashing after the Iraq invasion in 2003.  I don't say that in order to takes side, but as the novel progresses, the close-reader can detect that the hero-worship, the unquestioning devotion to Charles Lindbergh is very near the admiration Obama supporters display today.  Again, it's not a matter of taking sides, but it is remarkable how politics in America can go upside down (just like in the novel).

Roth combines what is perhaps his most accurate description of his childhood (or perhaps it was all made up) with the cyclone of historical events which he manipulates easily.  Charles Lindbergh is a Nazi sympathizer who comes to power not because of his experience but because of a rock star status even a decade or more after his amazing Atlantic crossing.  Immediately, President Lindbergh begins to implement what to the narrator and his family (particularly his father) are the collapsing domino effect which could only culminate with a pogrom.  In fact, many of their friends and neighbors immigrate to Canada.  Roth father clashes with Alvin, an orphan cousin of the protagonist who comes to live with them.  They are both rabid anti-Lindbergh and their following of Walter Winchell's radio program every evening leads Alvin to join the Canadian commandos to get into the fight against Hitler.  In the meanwhile, Philip's older brother Sandy becomes part of a government program "Just Folks" designed to integrate Jewish people and culture into the American mainstream.  He is sent to a farm in Kentucky where he learns the way of the farm, and comes back home even more indoctrinated than before--a true lover and supporter of President Lindbergh and his agenda.  All of this cause a perfect storm within a family that up until the election of Lindbergh was as normal as normal families can be.

Of course everything escalates.  The Antisemitism reaches a boiling point and, as Lindbergh becomes used to flying his own plane to different cities to be with the people, his plane disappears and he is nowhere to be found.  Now, like I said, Roth is a magician when it comes to making you believe these made-up events.  Even the ultra-amazing resolution to President Lindbergh's disappearance is a work of art and very much worth reading and losing one's self in it.  I cannot recommend this book more--it was full speed from the first page to the last, with both moments of rage and tenderness throughout.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Philip Roth -- The Humbling

The most difficult part of reading "The Humbling" is the excruciatingly painful personal associations to one's own heartbreak experiences.   Philip Roth mixes several levels of reality, no doubt, when depicting his protagonist's sense of being cornered without an exit, and, despite the fact that the reader can anticipate clearly where things are going, the genius of resolving the plot depends on carrying through the "acting/non-acting" dichotomy Roth introduces from the start.  Yet, we find that at the end of the novel, Simon Axler's conviction to his art has never really left the aging actor but rather has been dormant, pulsating throughout the short novel without the reader noticing until the very end.

Suicidal to some small extent, Simon Axler's stay at a psychiatric hospital begins his alteration of reality, a reality he needs to bring back his unconscious ability to act.  He is surrounded everywhere by people whom he thinks are in the process of acting themselves into some sort of life.  Waiting for the doctor, he notes that "Everybody else would be sitting there gloomingly silent, inwardly intense and rehearsing to themselves--in the lexicon of pop psychology or gutter obscenity or Christian suffering or paranoid pathology--the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealousy, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor and grief."  This is an internal observation by Axler that thunders of paradox--he's a man trying to find his way back to his art (acting) painfully aware of others' ability to act a part according to their circumstances.  What Axler fails to see in this passage is that these are not actors, nor is it amateurs trying to act a role of sorts--these are people living real life, the very problem Axler ignores about his own situation.  His is not a problem of art/acting but of life.  At the hospital he meets a woman, Sybil Van Buren, whose new husband sexually abused her daughter and she turned a blind eye of sorts out of cowardice, or so she explains her dilemma.  Her own shame demands she right the wrong by committing murder, even asking Simon Axler if he would undertake the task of killing her husband.  The pattern of "sub-plot-appearance-tell-me-your-story-pause-come-back-a-little-later" is obvious enough, but as Axler leaves the hospital, the reader encounters "the meat" of the novel and quickly forgets about Sybil's issues.

Axler becomes involved with a woman 25 years younger than him; 40 years old Pegeen Mike Stapleford is the daughter of old friends of his whom Axler has seen grown up over the years.  She is also a lesbian, and, despite the underpinnings of what occurs to them as they become intimate, Pegeen never strays away from her past to commit to Axler's life.  The sexual adventuring they engage in occupies a small part of the narrative, albeit explicitly detailed.  Yet, as Axler puts all his proverbial eggs in one basket, the writing is fluid enough and its currents share the secret of what is about to happen.  Pegeen's parents object to the relationship, of course, but it is Pegeen who shows her real self at the end when she (as she done quite a few times before) picks up and leaves with little or no explanation.  This, of course, pushes Axler over the top and he concludes to commit suicide once and for all.  Before he works up the courage to do so, he calls Pegeen's parents and goes into shameful rants.  This is the part where the reader considers how, at one point or another, he/she has behaved in such a deplorable fashion.  We've all had moments we are not very proud of, and the extent of Axler's behavior can take a reader back--way back--to those experiences, especially when the writing is this good and clear.  

Simon Axler reads of Sybil Van Buren's case on a local newspaper--she had shot her husband and was now awaiting trial for murder.  She (and not Axler's own pain) is the catalyst of the protagonist's suicide.  "Sybil Van Buren became the benchmark of courage. He repeated the inspiring formula to action [if she can do that, I can do this!], as though a simple word or two could get him to accomplish the most unreal of all things: if she could do that, I can do this, if she could do that... until finally it occurred to him to pretend that he was committing suicide in a play. In a play by Chekhov. What would be more fitting? It would constitute his return to acting, and, preposterous, disgraced, feeble little being that he was, a lesbian's thirteen-month mistake, it would take everything in him to get the job done. To succeed one last time to make the imagined real he would have to pretend that the attic was a theater and that he was Kostantin Gavrilovich Treplev in the concluding scene of 'The Seagull.'"  And he does commit suicide.  What is not clear at the end of the novel is how much of reality vs acting the protagonist exercises.  Philip Roth is among the best writers of his generation mainly because of techniques such as the one in "The Humbling."  While the text is literal enough to conclude the magnitude of Axler's actions, the underlying philosophical/existential/real vs imagined doubts Roth plants inside the reader's mind is enough to wrench us with both pain and exhilaration, love and hate, anger and peace with one's self. 

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Monday, July 02, 2012

The Month of Reading Philip Roth

Philip Roth has always been known as a maverick of sorts.  He has been both praised and criticized by the Jewish establishment for his uncompromising and "tact-be-damned" approach to topics which other writers circumnavigate or avoid altogether.  I have an old book (well, not old but rather I've had it for a long time) of photographs by Jill Krementz entitled "The Writer's Desk" and the photograph of Roth shows him in 1971, young and sporting a "devil-may-care" mustache with a broad smile.  The accompanying text: "I don't ask writers about their work habits. I really don't care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they're actually trying to find out, 'Is he as crazy as I am?' I don't need that question answered."  The copy of "The Humbling" I am presently reading (fresh off finishing "Indignation") depicts a Philip Roth which could easily be taken for the elder literary statesman he is.  I've fallen into a Philip Roth reading adventure and I wish I could say it was accidental... but it wasn't.  Last year, when Borders Book & Music was going out of business, I was lucky enough to have the time to "invade" the fiction shelves early every day of the sale.  The last three days were fruitful in terms of bargains (despite the fact that it pained me terribly to see Borders close) and I came away with a whopping $189.75 in savings on the last day.  The stack of fiction, believe it or not, was composed primarily of Roth's newer books.  Recently, as I rearranged some of the stacks in my office, I decided to put all of my new Roth acquisitions to see if I could "knock them out" one by one when the time came.  I believe the time has come.  You may call it a Philip Roth orgy of sorts--the titles include "Indignation," "The Humbling," "Exit Ghost," "Nemesis," and "The Plot Against America."  My goal is to finish them in the month of July.

What I am learning the most from Philip Roth is the advantages of letting the narrative form take its own course.  He describes enough but allows the reader to form her own ideas about the protagonists' actions and is kind with vistas into plot's twists and turns that other authors overlook (or simply demand of the reader to swim or sink).  For example, "The Humbling" opens with a clear presentation of the dilemma at hand (an actor who loses--for the lack of a better term--his mojo) and while exposing the issue at hand, Roth weaves in the interesting duality of acting/living/acting and/or trying to live according to the individual impulses of one's wishes.  The narrator explains the dilemma of Simon Axler's life as "He was an artificial madman too. The only role available to him was the role of someone playing a role. A sane man playing an insane man. A stable man playing a broken man. A self-controlled man playing a man out of control."  These are more than just simple contradictory/poetic juxtaposition of antinomianism existence--what Roth does here is introduce a wedge in the protagonist's psyche, one that is so clear and so palpable that one begins to want to get ahead of one's self in the reading.  This happened to me in "Indignation" as well.  When Marcus Messner moves into a new dorm that is described as a "firetrap" soon after learning that Marcus is telling his story in retrospect, I began to imagine that that was how Marcus died, but then Roth took me in a different direction and the resolution of the novel was so surprising I couldn't help but marvel at it. Simon Axler wakes to find his acting talent gone: "He screamed aloud when he awakened in the night and found himself still locked inside the role of the man deprived of himself, his talent, and his place in the world, a loathsome man who was nothing more than the inventory of his defects. In the mornings he hid in bed for hours, but instead of hiding from the role he was merely playing the role. And when finally he got up, all he could think about was suicide, and not its simulation either. A man who wanted to live playing a man who wanted to die."  

I am only on page 40 of this short little novel, and I suspect that I'll finish it quite quickly (just like I did with "Indignation").  What a treasure and a marvel is Philip Roth!  I am so glad to have taken up this challenge this month.