Roth

Philip Roth, the greatest American writer of his era, claims to have retired.

In the end, this might be a good thing, assuming he really retires. While his 90s and early 2000s resurgence was brilliant, his last novels were, uh, not very good. I had a couple of hours to kill in a library this summer and so I grabbed The Humbling off the shelves. To say the least, it was the worst Roth I’ve ever read. I mean, it’s one thing to be a misogynist in a brilliant novel. But in a bad novel, the misogyny is just unacceptable. That doesn’t take anyway from his 10-15 very good to amazing books. But maybe it is time.

67 comments on this post.
  1. mark f:

    Got The Humbling at a Borders liquidation and read it that day. It was, uh, not good. I bought Out Stealing Horses and Malamud’s The Assistant at the same time, to cite two short novels that blow Roth’s recent “trilogy” of minor works away.

    That being said, I actually just finished the last 40 pages of American Pastoral last night (been working my way through Zuckerman), which was fantastic. I’m a fan of some of his earlier odds & ends stuff, too, like Our Gang and some of The Great American Novel. Mickey Sabbath remains my favorite Roth creation.

  2. Erik Loomis:

    Mickey Sabbath is just about my favorite character in literature of the last 50 years.

  3. mark f:

    Mickey helped me figure out how I want to die.

  4. Sherm:

    his last novels were, uh, not very good.

    Indignation wasn’t terrible. And yes, mark, American Pastoral was fantastic.

  5. joe from Lowell:

    The Plot Against America is one of my favorite books.

    It’s amazing to me how he was able to fully flesh out such a big idea, but still make the book an intimate, character-driven novel.

  6. mark f:

    As was, in a very different way, The Ghost Writer. I didn’t find the other Zuckermans wholly successful, although Unbound and The Counterlife were close. On to I Married a Communist tomorrow.

  7. Lev @ LibraryGrape.com:

    And how do we feel about The Plot Against America? I thought it was pretty lazy historical fiction myself–Lindbergh was an isolationist but no fascist, Burton Wheeler was a pain in the ass civil libertarian, and the whole thing just smacked of trying too hard to make parallels to Dubya. Not sure why people trying to draw parallels to him didn’t use Harding, who is awfully similar down to the mangled English.

    Liked Human Stain quite a bit, though.

  8. Sherm:

    On to I Married a Communist tomorrow.

    That’s been in my queue for several years. His retirement might finally be the impetus for my reading it. And Portnoy’s Complaint remains one of the funniest books I have ever read, although it has been years. As an attorney, I laugh whenever I have to answer a summons and complaint signed by a lawyer named Portnoy (there are quite a few btw).

  9. Sherm:

    And how do we feel about The Plot Against America?

    Your complaints about the book didn’t bother me in the least bit for the reasons stated by JFL above.

  10. thusbloggedanderson:

    I mean, it’s one to be a misogynist in a brilliant novel.

    Is it?

    “I mean, it’s one to be a Nazi in a brilliant novel.”

    Hm.

    I have never finished a Roth book, and I write that as someone who can remember every novel he started but didn’t finish. What am I supposedly missing?

  11. Both Sides Do It:

    Philip Roth, the greatest American writer of his era

    Meh. I’d give it to Pynchon or Gaddis. It’s mainly a taste thing though.

  12. Lev @ LibraryGrape.com:

    I get that, but to me, counterfactual historical fiction lives or dies on the plausibility of the scenario. The Man In The High Castle was great because you could see how it could have turned out like that. The scenario in the Roth book is undermined if you actually know history–it would be like a book in which President Buchanan frees the slaves.

  13. mark f:

    I’m sort of with you. I don’t care how different Roth’s Lindbergh was from the real one any more than I care how well David Milch’s Swearengen matched history’s. But outside of the opening family DC vacation I found it pretty rote, and the ending was pat.

  14. thusbloggedanderson:

    If Pynchon had only had the good sense to die in 1975 or so, he’d be the one, though a good case can be made for Gaddis.

  15. elm:

    Philip Roth remains my favorite writer. The Zuckerman Bound series was fantastic and Letting Go is an underappreciated masterpiece. As Erik and others have said the stretch of books from Operation Shylock to Human Stain were great, especially American Pastoral.

    But, man, did it end painfully. The Dying Animal was horrific (the Kepesh novels were my least favorite of his early stuff, and it didn’t get better with the reintroduction of the character.) I was briefly optimistic that this was a one-off dud when The Plot Against America came out, which I thought was great even if the history was iffy in places, but Everyman was horrible, I couldn’t finish Exit Ghost, and I didn’t even try reading the most recent stuff.

    I decided long ago to believe that Roth retired in 2005. His not writing anything else makes it easier for me to sustain that fiction.

  16. fledermaus:

    I didn’t like it either. The ahistorical bits didn’t bother me but overall the book was surprisingly dull given the promising premise. But I also the unable to keep from comparing it to Man in the High Castle, a far better work by a much better writer.

  17. Both Sides Do It:

    If there were no Mason & Dixon I’d probably agree. But that thing’s a goddamn masterpiece.

  18. Erik Loomis:

    I thought The Dying Animal was alright although obviously not his greatest by any means.

  19. Lee:

    I’m going to split the difference. The Plot Against America was beautifully written, you really get a sense on how big events are affecting the Protagonist and his family.

    At the same time, it was not good as a counter-factual. Roth can’t quite imagine that there would be tremendous changes because of the events depcited in the story. He still has Robert Kennedy running for President in 1968 and getting assaniated. At the end of the Plot Against America, Roth notes that the GOP was decimated as party with nearly no members in Congress. American political history would be so different that it makes no sense that RFK gets murdered while running for the Presidency.

  20. Lee:

    The Man in the High Castle was completely implausible even if it was a very entertaining book. I highly doubt that the victorious Axis powers would be as technically competent as they were in the book. In real life, the Allied powers had a much more impressive research effort than the Axis powers did. Nazis going into space or dredging the Mediterranean is not something that would happen even if they won WWII.

    It was also unrealistic that the Japanese occupiers of the West Coast would adopt American names. The Japanese Empire attempted to Japanize their colonial subjects and get them to take Japanese style names. In a world where Japan occupied San Francisco, the conquered Americans would fine themselves with Japanese names.

  21. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    This.

    A nicely written book, but because of the mishandling of the counterfactual element, a distinctly less good book than, e.g,, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, or The Human Stain.

  22. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    Even Vineland is very good, if not up to the level of the three novels that preceded it.

  23. Incontinentia Buttocks:

    My Life as a Man (sort of a Zuckerman novel) is also very good and doesn’t get the notice that it deserves IMO.

  24. Rick Santorum's Leaky Faucet:

    Greatest? Pynchon, baby. Quality > Quantity.

  25. Decrease Mather:

    Mickey Sabbath did nothing for Israel.

  26. burritoboy:

    I suppose the question is what is Roth’s era? Roth, Updike, Yates and Connell all published their first novels in a three year period (1958-1961), for instance. Salter’s The Hunters was only a couple years before that. Cheever’s Wapshot Chronicles came out in 1957 (Cheever had been an extremely prominent short story writer before then, admittedly).

    You could say that Bellow was in a previous generation to Roth, but Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March (his big break-out) only was published in 1953. Styron was only a few years older than Roth, but he published Lie Down at a young age – as opposed to Yates, who only published Revolutionary Road in his late thirties.

  27. Pomas Thynchon:

    I was gonna say, anderson must mean 1997

  28. Rick Santorum's Leaky Faucet:

    If you’re implying that authors get demerits for lesser novels (Vineland, Against the Day, Inherent Vice), then that would count against Roth far more than against Pynchon.

  29. Lee:

    There is nothing wrong with a literary author writing genre fiction as long as they understand the principles of the genre. Michael Chabon’s the Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a good example of a literary author writing an alternative hitory that plays genre principles.

    Roth did not understand or was not interested in the principles of alterantive history. It shows in the result.

  30. Scott Lemieux:

    The imagined obituary in Sabbath’s Theater could not be more awesome.

  31. Lee:

    I’m going to do a slight correction and change it to the narrator and his family. The protagonists of the Plot were the narrator’s parents.

  32. Scott Lemieux:

    Mediocre at best, although made into a pretty decent movie.

  33. Anna in PDX:

    I very much agree with this. If you want to get into genre you have to not think yourself above it.

  34. BW:

    I actually thought Everyman wasn’t bad for what it was. But maybe if I’d read most of Roth’s earlier work (only gotten to The Plot Against America so far) I’d think differently.

  35. Lee:

    Of course, a literary author could still fall flat even if they resepect the genre. Michael Chabon’s Gentleman of the Road was horrible and really badly written.

  36. thusbloggedanderson:

    Yah, but even if Gaddis’s last two novels weren’t all that impressive, they didn’t inspire the same kind of doubts as to whether his major works were a lucky accident or otherwise not that great.

  37. thusbloggedanderson:

    Okay, so I should try American Pastoral, I’m hearing. Will do.

  38. thusbloggedanderson:

    It does sometimes seem to me that there’s Gravity’s Rainbow and then there’s everybody else.

    My latest definition of greatness in a work is that, while you’re in it, it seems like the only one worth reading/seeing/hearing.

    I get that way about Stendhal, about James, about Ingmar Bergman, about Belle & Sebastian … you finish one, and the only work you can imagine going to next has to be by the same artist, because everything else seems trivial now.

  39. Anonymous:

    Serious question: has Roth ever wrote a non-misogynist book or story? I can’t really recall one, so I’m finding the claim that The Humbling is especially so a bit disconcerting.

  40. STH:

    I mean, it’s one thing to be a misogynist in a brilliant novel. But in a bad novel, the misogyny is just unacceptable.

    This just leaped out at me. So misogyny is acceptable in a brilliant novel, but not a bad one? I guess the charitable interpretation is that misogyny is more tolerable in a good book, because at least you’re getting something out of it. But I think the phrasing is somewhat unfortunate here.

  41. elm:

    I suppose it’s possible I’m letting my anti-Kepesh bias get to me (Can I say how much I despised Professor of Desire? And how much I thought the Breast was a complete flop as Roth’s first attempt to mess with form and convention?) But I found the relationship between Kepesh and Consuela to contain all the bad things about Roth: his occassional but still all-too-frequent mysoginy, his belief that flouting moral conventions is in and of itself a good thing, his narcissism.

    In other novels, the good of Roth outweighs the bad by a large margin. I guess I just didn’t see what the good was in Dying Animal that could even begin to counterbalance the greater-than-normal bad.

  42. elm:

    Yes, yes. A thousand times yes. Only my 3rd favorite Roth novel,Ghost Writer and Letting Go being top two, but mostly because those books ‘speak to me’ more. American Pastoral may be, objectively, his best book.

  43. elm:

    There’s at least a little misogyny in every thing he writes, I think. Maybe Goodbye, Columbus was free of it. It’s been a while since I read it, but I don’t remember anything off hand. One could argue that Letting Go reflected the misogyny of the times rather than celebrated it (the misogyny seemed to be portrayed as a character flaw rather than a neutral or even positive part of characters’ personalities). Other than that, no, I can’t think of anything.

    I strongly suspect I would hate Roth as a person even as I love him as an author, but the quality of his art often (though certainly always) outweighs the ugliness of parts of it.

  44. Bitter Scribe:

    I can recommend that one. One of the best in that cycle, which IMO comprises some of his best writing.

  45. Bitter Scribe:

    It’s a gray area. For me, Roth’s treatment of women characters doesn’t go on the positive side of his ledger. Too often they’re harpies or childishly flawed.

  46. Bitter Scribe:

    In terms of his inspiration, Roth’s “era” is his childhood in Newark, N.J., during World War II.

    In terms of output, “Goodbye, Columbus,” his breakout novel, was published in 1959. He has produced steadily and prolifically since then. Yes, he wrote some clunkers along the way (“When She Was Good,” “The Great American Novel”), but in general he’s held to a consistently high quality standard, IMO.

  47. Bitter Scribe:

    Oh, hell, if I stopped reading, looking at or listening to every book, artwork or music that was done by a jerk, live would barely be worth living.

  48. Scott Lemieux:

    It’s stunningly good. Sabbath’s Theater is, I think, even better, but not really where to start if you’re a skeptic.

    The Ghost Writer is amazing too.

  49. Anonymous:

    but the quality of his art often (though certainly always) outweighs the ugliness of parts of it.

    Subjectively, of course. Then again, I suspect that most Roth fans aren’t the subject of his many “little” bigotries, hence their generosity and fullness of spirit in forgiving him and continuing to read and promote him.

    You know?

  50. Anonymous:

    No one suggested you or anyone else stop reading him because he’s a misogynist. If the world stopped listening to and reading misogynists… well, what then. Something something Brave New World something politically correct something humorless something something human race would die out, further somethings made of straw.

  51. joe:

    you are a complete fucking know-nothing dick and this reminds me again why I should never bother reading this piece of shot blog

    seriously, this blog is all of the my-farts-don’t-stink fools you met in college

    get it straight guys — YOU AIN’T THAT BRIGHT AND SPECIAL

    but you THINK you’re so freakin insightful — WHY?

  52. IM:

    The plot against america suffers especially in the later half of a weak plot.

    but still make the book an intimate, character-driven novel.

    That is actually from my perspective the (hidden?) strength of the book.

  53. IM:

    If only Pynchon good find a end to his novels.They tend to peter out.

  54. IM:

    what’s that, cut and paste all purpose trolling?

  55. elm:

    No, that’s fair. I mean, to the extent that it can be judged objectively, he’s a great writer. But I’m not a fan of all great writers (reading Franzen, for instance, just makes me angry) and I can certainly understand why many people cannot stand Roth. I would guess that Roth fans are predominately men and it’s not hard to figure out why.

  56. joe from Lowell:

    The plot against america suffers especially in the later half of a weak plot.

    But that’s ok, because, ironically, The Plot Against America is not a plot-driven novel.

  57. joe from Lowell:

    Lindbergh was an isolationist but no fascist

    Lindbergh’s actions were isolationist, not fascist, in the novel.

    And also…did you read to the end?

  58. joe from Lowell:

    Roth did not understand or was not interested in the principles of alterantive history.

    Roth’s intended audience was not interested in it as genre fiction.

    Also, the people at Newport booed Dylan, because he wasn’t doing folk music right.

  59. Mike Schilling:

    Yes, he wrote some clunkers along the way ([...] “The Great American Novel”)

    You, sir, have no appreciation of greatness. That is one of the best, funniest, truest books anyone has ever written. And so what if it falls apart at the end? So does Huckleberry Finn.

  60. Mike Schilling:

    Except for being wonderful, touching, very funny, and well-written, I’d have to agree.

  61. befuggled:

    Comment troll spam, I think. He was just too lazy to post in the link to the web site with the crap merchandise.

  62. John Protevi:

    It’s JenBob, but he can’t bring himself to talk about the election.

  63. Anonymous:

    Fucking hell. Franzen’s in the canon these days?

    I’m a bit leery about “objective” standards of greatness, anyway. Apart from the fact that by identifying and isolating to the exclusion of other perfectly useful and effective alternatives certain characteristics, themes, or devices say, of a novel, as Great, one is being a boring, pedantic, parochial and vaguely philistine ass (much in the way list-makers ruin pop music by judging the ranking methodology of amateurs more important than the artists themselves), doing so is merely a clandestine way of excluding every author who isn’t a Great White Man from the canon of important writers. This exercise never fails in producing lists of white, European or North American men, with a few token Others carefully inserted for the sake of appearances.

  64. LeeEsq:

    I know that. However, an author as skilled as Roth should know that minimum respect needs to be paid to genre rules. His approach to alternative history was good, focusing on how it effects everyday people rather than on battles and the more important people. Just don’t ignore the fact that things are going to be very different.

  65. Anonymous:

    I mean, I understand what you’re saying, but, in the case of Roth, so many of his plots and characterizations rely on the most reductive kind of gender essentialism, on a palpable hostility towards women, on the understanding that women sap male energy, it’s mostly impossible for someone like me to read one of his novels (most of the stories are easier simply because they’re shorter) and find it in any way edifying, either as an exercise or as a form of leisure.

    Every woman-type creature (and she’s always vaguely otherworldly and inhuman, all breasts and moist mouths with an air of an emotional vampire) one of his male protagonists encounters is a bad egg, a slut, an idiot, or a tease. Women are always the enemy and the other, and sex is often a means of punishing them, controlling them, or physically attacking them in the Rothian universe.

    Roth has always tried to come across as the opposite of a prude–but his sexual liberation mostly is about sexual violence or (what he perceives to be) perversity at the cost of the humanity of his female characters, who usually function as obvious caricatures of women he already knows (cf Bloom) or as selfless would-be saviors who are supposed to rescue Roth-type figures from their self-loathing and misery.

    This is all, of course, standard Great Men writing fare. But coupled with Roth’s actual hackery, I’m unsure why he’s being defended. Not necessarily by you, but by the thread at large.

  66. Scott Lemieux:

    Yeah, Roth has written some clinkers, but TGAN is awesome.

  67. M. Bouffant:

    Ol’ Phil Roth hisse’f, I reckon.

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