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Adventures In Reading: Big Angry Philip Roth Edition

And so it came to pass that, on the thirty-first day of January, in this Year of Our Lord 2009, I did purchase a novel by Philip “Face-Fucker” Roth. You kind of have to know what you’re talking about if you’re talking opposition; even though every single long or short excerpt I have read from P.F.F.R.’s novels has made me go “YAAAAUGH” and want to punch something in the face, maybe a kitten, one needs to know the context, does one not? (One maybe does not; although I’m coming in with an open mind, and the misogyny has been surprisingly light so far, all I have learned from The Human Stain is that it is way more traumatic and horrible to be falsely accused of racism than it is to be affected by actual racism itself, YAAAAAUGH PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH, and it all seems to be leaning heavily on the view of education as veering away from Proper Respect for Great White Men and towards total fucking non-white-dude-respecting chaos, as put forth notably by this dude, apparently a bestie of fellow misogygreat Saul Bellow, who was all over this book, like, “yes! Multicultural education will bring about the end of days! Now, allow me to present you with another novel which is in no small part about Jewish identity and experience,” so I am not even going to try to parse this, just going to say: wrong. Also, Vivian Gornick is officially smarter than all of us, the end.) Anyway! It occurs to me that you, too, may be engaged in checking out the opposition. I hereby share with you a few survival tips.
First, you must be aware that I bought the Roth novel used, as I am very particular about who gets my money, and I specifically try not to hand it over to actual or suspected obnoxious dicks. I furthermore bought it from the Housing Works bookstore, which donates all proceeds to fight AIDS and homelessness. I was seriously determined to expunge all icky karmic feelings from this exchange. It didn’t really help; even after I’d picked it up, I was irrationally convinced that Roth would somehow find a way to benefit from my purchase. Maybe he would stalk the streets of New York and terrorize homeless people with AIDS until he’d gotten precisely $8.50 from their pockets. I had no way of knowing. Anyway, wasn’t he benefiting, in some sense, by my consenting to let his work into my life? It is kind of like when someone is trying to pick a fight with you, and you are trying to ignore that person because you really don’t need this, and don’t consider him significant enough to fight with anyway, and so he just gets louder and louder and meaner and meaner until you finally consent to start yelling at him, and he is like, “ha ha, I win, you care what I think, and by the way what a hysterical bitch you are!” For that reason, I determined not to leave the bookstore until I’d found a book by a woman I had previously ignored.
(For the record: I settled on Joyce Carol Oates. I did this in honor of Big Dead John Updike and his five hundred thousand books, because they both published a lot, and Oates will probably continue to do so, seeing as how she is alive and all, but the conversations I have heard around Updike have been like, “he published so much! Isn’t that inspiring,” whereas the conversations I have heard around Oates have been like, “she publishes so much, Jesus, it’s like she can’t control her output.” Sexism in the literary world: it takes many forms! This public service announcement has been brought to you by the Task Force to Finally Get Around to Reading Joyce Carol Oates.)
Seeking out women’s voices, and the voices of other marginalized people, is a necessary survival tactic. If you are reading this, I am going to assume you know all about that. What I am not going to assume you know is the fact that it is literally impossible to read two books at the same time! You can read them in close sequence – a chapter of one, a chapter of the other – but precise simultaneity is not, in fact, possible to achieve. This is especially hard to deal with when you are reading someone like Roth, when you need, more than anything else, to have a smart and friendly voice in the room. Because Roth, Jesus: I may not survive this.
As an aside, I am currently reading the Alexandria Quartet, which is (a) really racist, (b) really colonialist, and (c) really misogynist, and I am reading it because the prose itself is kind of pretty and it does some interesting things with perspective (nothing that hasn’t been done before, and better, but still) and all of the above-listed flaws are both blatant and offensive, but also not impossible to wade through, because the author seems to kind of assume them as part of his and his readers’ worldview; he doesn’t at any point try to mount a defense of them. I am not defending them here, either. What I am saying is that Roth is different. Reading him is like being hectored, assaulted, insulted, attacked: endless pages, not only of Roth being wrong, but of Roth defending his wrongness and aiming incredible hatred (through both his narrative choices and his characters’ internal monologues) at anyone who dares to object. Roth has a physical effect on me, something I’ve experienced before only in relation to actual people: my heart starts hammering and I feel cold and all my muscles tense up and I am possessed by a rage that scares me. Which is weird, because that kind of rage is actually one of the subjects of The Human Stain – it’s just that it is glorified in Roth’s narrative surrogates and vilified in everyone else. I am forced to believe that Roth and I may have a lot in common. I am also forced to believe that Roth is too small and narcissistic to ever understand that this may be so. That, not the rage itself, is what keeps his work from being great: though he tries to comprehend other perspectives, he lacks the fundamental empathy and imagination necessary to understand that they may be valid even if they conflict with his own. There is an entire chapter from the perspective of a feminist professor; everything she says in it is correct, and as soon as we dive into her internal monologue we learn that she is sad and lonely and can’t get laid and that’s why she’s out to destroy the hero. There is no opening Roth’s ears or his heart. He is trapped in Philip Roth; when you read his work, you are trapped in Philip Roth too.
Does Philip Roth look up PJ Harvey videos on the YouTube, though? I suspect he does not! You should, however. For, yes, if you are going to do this, you are going to need survival tactics, and you are going to need backup. And the only thing, I repeat, the only thing that has gotten me though this, is listening to this song and a few others on repeat seventy thousand times whilst I read:


  1. Anonymous wrote:

    “Roth has a physical effect on me, something I’ve experienced before only in relation to actual people: my heart starts hammering and I feel cold and all my muscles tense up and I am possessed by a rage that scares me.”

    Not sure you could have described it any better. I can only agree by way of analogy, the way a few particular works of art (some book, some movie, won’t name them) elicit a deep moral revulsion that overrides the desire to finish the effort I’d begun.

    One friend whom I especially trust on literary matters said good things about “The Plot Against America,” though I never followed him up on it.


    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  2. Sady wrote:

    Yeah, I’ve come to the conclusion that reading Roth may not have been the best idea. I know people are interested in what he does with first-person narration and voice, and I’ve gone back to read about 50% of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which I guess is the big one (I went for “The Human Stain” because I’d heard that it had his most well-defined female character – and I agree, what he does with Faunia is impressive, though it’s almost canceled out by the ridiculously implausible Delphine Roux, a feminist professor whose whole secret is that she wants the hero to fuck her and is kind of unstable and stupid and will destroy him due to his failure to give her some hot septuagenarian dick, I guess) and all I’m seeing is a more overtly angry, less lyrical Henry Miller. I guess I can see that what he did with Jewish identity and experience was revelatory in his historical moment. Yet the techniques people praise in his work, even the meta-fiction-ish use of “Philip Roth” as a character, are not honestly all that original. So: Philip Roth. Don’t get it.

    And: he can’t tell the difference between sex and rape, he acknowledges that he sees women as lesser beings put on this earth to please him and be discarded, and he claims the moral and intellectual high ground but only delivers sophistry and narcissism. I honestly don’t believe in him as a writer. Who he is as a person shouldn’t concern me directly, except insofar as sexist treatment of women in general concerns me. I don’t know whether he ACTUALLY beat his wife, as in “My Life as a Man,” whether he’s ACTUALLY attempted or committed rape, as in “Portnoy.” What I care about is that he has such a limited range of understanding and his characters don’t ring true unless they are men of a certain generation and temperament, which is a pretty big failing in “America’s greatest living writer.” The rage I feel, as Echidne pointed out in this awesome post and comment thread, is more about the fact that he’s getting away with it than with the fact that he’s done it in the first place. The Emperor has no clothes, and I’m tired of being forced to look at his dick. The End.

    Wednesday, February 4, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink