I've now penetrated halfway into the Philip Roth corpus, reading not chronologically but as the novels become available in our local public library. At this moment I’ve interrupted my progress to enjoy DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize novel Vernon God Little, a virgin copy of which I uncovered in a basement storage box.
Here's my interim report on the works of Philip Milton Roth. No doubt but that Roth has created a stunningly original and accomplished body of work: it's witty, inventive, imaginative and unpredictable. So far The Human Stain, which I read a couple of years ago and plan to re-read soon, is my choice for masterpiece, but among the Rothgroup are a number of real dazzlers. Not a single book has been uninteresting (well, of the very early works, Letting Go was ordinary and Portnoy's Complaint, though notorious, was not serious). But everything has been engaging, even if only for the coruscating surface. I'm genuinely impressed. The Roth guy is good.
But, you ask, Is Roth a writer for all time, or is he a writer for this present moment? No one can make a fair estimate until the requisite hundred years have elapsed. Nevertheless, my great pleasure and admiration for his achievement notwithstanding, I very much doubt the permanent value of Roth's work. My provisional opinion is that Roth confines himself to too small a slice of human experience to sit at the table of the greats. The more I read, the more conscious I become that his engagement with the world is incomplete and deficient.
At bottom, Roth's subject is domesticity. His major characters, on the whole, do not track whales or go to war or cure diseases or wrestle with new ideas or sojourn in the wilderness; instead, they manage relationships with their parents and with their colleagues and with their mistresses and ladyfriends. It's no vice for a writer to choose the domestic arena: it's the domain of Jane Austen and Henry James, among many others. Roth, however, presents us with a severely circumscribed domesticity -- a partial and skewed view even of his own area of interest.
Human social life begins with the family from which we derive, but it culminates in the family that we create. It's a cycle; we’re born, we mature, we marry, we bring forth children who themselves mature, and then we shuffle off the stage. Roth understands and engages the first part of life -- the growing out of childhood into adulthood. In traditional literature, it's the part of life that, recorded in the novels of a writer less satiric and more comic than Roth, might end with a wedding feast and the promise of future fertility. But Roth does not write traditional comedy, and he's inordinately hostile to marriage and especially to children. He's an acute observer of both the nuclear and extended families of his west-of-Manhattan Newark-Jewish roots. But when it comes to the progenitive phase of life, he has little to offer: incomprehension, or less than incomprehension -- merely vacancy, a hole, a void. There's no sign that Roth appreciates that to nurture a family of one's own is for most people a profound part of the human voyage. His characters don't willingly marry, and if they do, they don't stay married and they certainly don't reproduce. There are no babies, no boys or girls, no teen-agers in the homes and streets and schools of New Rothville.
When we (that is, the plurality of human beings) grapple with parenthood, we inevitably come to some sort of detente with the generation that begot us. Not only do we learn about life from our sons and daughters, but we find it immensely satisfying to do so. But in the fifteen or so of Roth’s novels that I've so far read, I've yet to find the father who loves his own children. It's as though Roth were deaf and blind to the profounder half of human existence. Children are not a fulfillment; they are only a burden and an annoyance -- clogs to Zuckerman's or Kepesh's or Tarnopol's or Roth's freedom. (Readers of Claire Bloom's memoir of her life with Philip -- Leaving a Doll's House --will clearly remember Roth's implacable and inexplicable antagonism to Bloom's daughter.) For many novelists, the non-existence of paternal affection would not be a handicap to artistic achievement. But Roth writes entirely out of his own experience; he’s anything but empathic. Roth cannot conceive of the full adulthood that comes with mature parenthood. So he doesn't know what he can't know -- that his various alter egos, even as they age, linger in perpetual frozen adolescence.
Unable to imagine the love of children, Roth also lacks the ability to appreciate or describe a functioning marriage. For Roth and his multiple avatars, marriages are similar to children in that they are restrictions on individual freedom. And therefore Roth's hostility to husbands is corrosive and aggressive. Husbands are unmanly, emasculated. Real men have lots of women; those who pretend to enjoy a permanent partnership with one person are either slaves or eunuchs.
Roth writes obsessively about Jews and Jewishness and Jewish culture but there's a core Jewish value that he never acknowledges. It's "being a mensch." A mensch is a mature man who does right by his friends, his associates, and especially by his family. He meets, and more than meets, his obligations, especially when it's rough going. He can be relied upon. He enjoys his life, but he would never put his own satisfactions ahead of his obligations to either his closest kin or to humankind in general. Of such a traditional virtue, Roth's characters know nothing. In these novels, Roth's various alter egos not only shirk responsibility and run from trouble, but they judge it virtuous to do so. In the world according to Roth, only a schmuck would be a mensch. But perhaps the satirist is always doomed to be the malcontent outsider. A happy Rothmensch would be no Roth at all.
Philip Roth is by all odds the greatest novelist of arrested development ever produced by the state of New Jersey.