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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.

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