Reading Roth Holistically
October 13, 2010
Writing at Tablet, Eryn Loeb remarks:
And in the end, my Philip Roth binge made it hard for me to think of any one of his books as an individual work. Read together, they left behind a web of allusions and cross-references and authorial obsessions and outbursts and reflections that I’m happy to leave all tangled together in my head, letting the Nathan Zuckerman of American Pastoral touch base with his younger self from The Counterlife, having Swede Levov explain his familial knowledge of glove-making to the nameless protagonist of Everyman (who himself has some expertise in the fine jewelry trade), and letting Alex Portnoy and Goodbye, Columbus’ Neil Klugman swap stories—while all the female romantic interests get together to compare their own notes on this group of tortured Jewish men. Read on a bender like this, the connections between stories and characters and themes all but broadcast themselves, and I got a better sense of the man behind them than I would have had I read American Pastoral by itself, in installments the length of a subway ride.
This runs parallel to some of my feelings about Roth — more than anything, to my feelings about the Zuckerman saga. On their own, the first trilogy are entertaining and literate, and they pose their questions sometimes and irritate you at others — and I can’t help but feel that were it not for the Zuckerman novels that followed, Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift would have preemptively made Roth’s triplet more or less unnecessary. But that monumental, Jamesian middle cycle, as brilliant as it is on its own (and, with respect to each novel, individually) is not nearly as tremendous without having known the younger, manic Zuckerman of the previous three. Exit Ghost, on its own, is middling; as a coda, it feels absolutely necessary. Some day, it will force me to re-read the whole saga, in order to figure out whether there’s anything more to appreciate at its close.
Relatedly, Roth’s portraits of aging — in the later Zuckerman novels, Sabbath’s Theater, Everyman, and so on — become more vivid in mosaic. His project strikes one as less to describe the ideal way to age and die, than to describe how these individuals do age and die, and react to that process, and set them side-by-side. There’s commentary in it, but somehow a far more compassionate commentary than any individual novel would indicate.