No Protection: The Exquisite Suffering of Philip Roth

by: Greg Sato

A few years ago, I won a bet by reading every book that Philip Roth ever published. I still haven’t gotten that bucket of Maker’s Mark I was promised, but reading the books was worth it. I got to revisit an old favorite.

Portnoy’s Complaint was the first book I remember reading on my own, and if memory serves, I picked it up because I heard a rumor that it talked a lot about boobs. I think that alone would’ve been enough to change my life, but Jesus Christ, that voice bowled me over. Roth’s said that it was with Portnoy that he found “a less page-bound voice,” and that’s understandable. It’s difficult to imagine an author writing about fucking an apple by using that sterile, literary mode of speech that’s leaden with propriety. Sooner or later, you’re just gonna have to throw in some “cocks” and “cum.”

But reading Portnoy’s Complaint at 25 was different from reading it at 15, in part, because I knew more of what he was talking about, though not necessarily regarding apples. Roth paid a dear price for Portnoy. He became one of the most famous writers in the country. He was one of those people that everyone had an opinion about but that no one knew. And that’s an awful situation for a writer with serious literary ambitions.

Knowing this re-shaped my reading of Portnoy. I wasn’t just scanning for sex scenes. Page after page, Roth makes palpable the intense life-long torture one suffers trying to please these people you love. But the problem stems precisely from the fact that you love them. And Roth can also apply the brush delicately. Although the Portnoy’s screaming matches take center-stage, Roth’s scattered pockets of warmth remind you why loving someone isn’t such a bad problem to have.

But Portnoy’s Complaint wasn’t Roth’s greatest achievement. I am very, very serious when I say that, with the exception of I Married a Communist, every novel that Philip Roth wrote from 1979 to 2006 is a masterpiece. Zuckerman Bound, The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain: no novelist has had a run like this in literary history. But what is it that he’s doing? What guides his work? Mainly it’s fucking, family, and history, but Roth isn’t as straight-forward as that. James Wood and Joseph O’Neill are the only writers I know to label Roth a post-modernist. (Wood’s 2007 piece on Exit Ghost is the most perceptive writing on Roth I’ve ever come across.)

Roth shares a lot of the same concerns as most post-modern writers—most evidently in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—but Roth hasn’t abandoned traditional mimesis the way a writer like Donald Barthelme did. Roth inserts a narrator whose perspective heavily qualifies the story, and this often goes unnoticed since Roth writes in a more traditional mode. Plus, his narrators are too often assumed to be Roth himself, and he seems resigned to this and even relishes it by endowing his narrators with details from his own personal history. (This gets out of control in Operation Shylock, a novel by Philip Roth in which the novelist Philip Roth pretends to be the fake Philip Roth who’s been advocating a reverse Exodus to Europe.) The interaction between the narrator’s biography and the author’s create another fiction beyond the books that ought to be read with the same scrutiny as the novels. It’s much clearer after reading all 30 books.

The Counterlife and Operation Shylock define his methods, but American Pastoral is the most powerful. It’s told by Roth’s most frequent narrator, the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who’s now old and impotent after a bout with cancer. (All of those facts are absolutely crucial.) Zuckerman runs into the star of his high school, Swede Levov, and tries to find out what happened to him in the intervening years. Is this guy really as boring as he looks, or did something happen? That’s the task the narrator sets himself to. But it’s not an investigation. He imagines it. We’re not learning about the Swede; we’re learning about Zuckerman through the narrative he creates for the Swede. And this, for me, is what qualifies the preposterous gynophobia: it’s made up by a former fuck-fiend, now impotent recluse.

This loss of potency is the source of the book’s exquisite sadness. The Swede is the most capable, physically adept man Zuckerman ever knew, but that doesn’t protect him from the great horrors that tear apart his world. Roth and Zuckerman go into great detail about the effort required of the Swede to create the life he wanted, which was all destroyed when his daughter allegedly bombs a post office to protest the Vietnam War. The intensity of the family drama of the earlier books remains. Zuckerman effectively imagines us into these people’s home.

But you can see him scribbling down the story when he wanders off onto a heartbreaking tangent. For instance: in a panic, the Swede calls his asshole younger brother. “It is the wrong brother from whom to seek consolation, but what can he do? When it comes to consolation, it is always the wrong brother, the wrong father, the wrong mother, the wrong wife, which is why one must be content to console oneself and be strong and go on in life consoling others.” That repetition, there’s a propulsive sadness and desperation emanating from this deserted man that he can’t even keep from leaking into his story about someone else.

It pours from him involuntarily, and gasping, he tries to reason with himself to calm down. American Pastoral’s loaded with these didactic, Proustian asides, but unlike Proust who basically stops the narrative to teach you how to read people, the lessons Roth or Zuckerman imparts are embedded in the characters. They just can’t help themselves. They’re gravely wounded and still raging with grief. They’re dying animals, and they tried. But they got it all wrong.

Greg Sato is a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media and Cinema Studies program.

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