This essay originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in the Oyster Review.
Philip Roth is dead, but his career ended six years ago, with his public announcement that he’d stopped writing. It was obvious that he meant it: Roth never gave the impression, as some writers annoyingly do, that writing flowed from him spontaneously. Indeed, in his interviews and essays he always foregrounded the willful intent, the effort, the six-hour days at his standing desk. It was a decision to arrange his life like that, to punch the clock every day, and when he moved back to Manhattan and got an iPhone, it was clearly a decision to stop.
Which means we’ve had some time to consider Roth’s unparalleled career in toto—to reread the books as the work of a living writer before moving them into the separate stacks where we study or neglect the dead.
No other novelist had a narrative like Roth’s: the enfant terrible who settles into an engaged middle age making spiky satires and experiments … and who then, without warning, begins a hair-raising run of masterpieces that make everything up to that point look like a warmup. In hindsight, the books organize themselves into four periods: a decade of finding his voice, two decades of trial and error, an imperial phase, and a dying fall.
To start at the beginning, though: Goodbye, Columbus has all the attributes of the classic American first novel. It’s a swift coming-of-age story about a young man in love with a woman he can’t see clearly, taking place over the course of an intense summer. It’s also about two different kinds of Jewish families that used to exist, the pushy strivers and the WASP-ily assimilated, and how they look down on each other. It’s a near-perfect example of the form—few mature novelists display the chops Roth had his first time out—but today the satirical elements seem foreign, almost anthropological.
There followed a pair of heavily plotted melodramas, Letting Go and When She Was Good. They have their partisans, especially the former, but in the context of Roth’s subsequent work they feel strained and artificial. And then came the breakthrough: Portnoy’s Complaint, the succès de scandale that made Roth the most famous writer of his day. A free-associating monologue delivered by a neurotic young Jewish man to his silent analyst, it’s singularly forceful and alive. You can feel the pent-up energy of a generation of teenage masturbators bursting ecstatically onto the page.
What you can’t really feel anymore is the shock, or the funniness. Portnoy’s problem is that it was too successful: It remade the culture in its own smutty image. Today the bawdy set pieces—crude masturbation jokes involving raw liver—seem as American as American Pie. What remains, under the antic comedy, is the familial sadness of the Portnoys, so much love leading to so much misery, and the hectoring voice that would carry so much of Roth’s subsequent work.
The Experimental, Autobiographical, and Metafictional
After Portnoy, Roth spent a while trying new things. There were two satirical goofs, Our Gang and The Great American Novel, about the Nixon administration and a communist baseball league, respectively. And he invented two alter egos: David Kepesh, a horny professor of literature, and Nathan Zuckerman, a strong-minded novelist. These two figures would prove useful for almost three decades—Kepesh providing an outlet for Roth’s most libidinous prose, Zuckerman allowing him to convert his writerly experience into material.
The two Kepesh books from this period helped create Roth’s reputation as the poet laureate of unrestrained male sexuality—which is adjacent to his reputation for misogyny. The Breast, in which Kepesh Kafka-ishly turns into a giant mammary gland, is too dumb to take seriously, but The Professor of Desire, a kind of sexual bildungsroman, is one of the problem books for Roth fans: powerfully written, frequently abhorrent, but containing (as Roth’s novels often do) its own most pertinent criticism.
In the Zuckerman Bound series—three short novels and an even shorter “epilogue”—Zuckerman grows from apprentice to best-seller to invalid, taking on opponents large and small armed with only his imaginative power. The Ghost Writer, which is basically perfect, recapitulates the struggle of Portnoy in a minor key, imagining freedom from the historical weight of the Holocaust in the fantasy that Anne Frank might be alive and well in rural New England. The Anatomy Lesson is a revenge joke, one that’s still funny, in response to a bad review (a real one, by Irving Howe in Commentary; it’s fun to read it knowing that Roth got a whole novel out of it). More than any others, these small books prefigure the “mature” style that Roth would settle on for his great late works. It’s no coincidence that he subsequently turned to Zuckerman when he wanted to enmesh his characters in big-picture history: Zuckerman’s is the voice he uses to represent both the heroic individual and the all-consuming world outside him.
Having recapitulated parts of his life via a stand-in, Roth stripped away the mask: His next three books feature a protagonist named Philip Roth. Two are presented as nonfiction—The Facts, a chilly autobiography that mostly serves to illuminate the autobiographical material in the novels, and Patrimony, a vividly detailed memoir of his father’s decline and death. The third is Deception, an unsettling, probably brilliant novel-in-dialogue about adulterous lovers.
Throughout these years Roth played with the boundary between the content of his fiction and his real-world existence. But his interest, unlike that of some of the more academic metafictionists, was less experimental than psychological: Each new angle, each persona taken up and exposed, seemed to be an attempt to get more of his inner life onto the page. He took this furthest in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—big, tricky novels about writing and lies. Both books combine the metafictional games with the exuberant use of one of Roth’s chief novelistic gifts: the rendering of emotional intensity so as to make it both funny and contagious. The result is that the tricks intensify rather than diminish the books’ energy.
The Great Period
After Operation Shylock, Roth was one of the most acclaimed writers in America. In retrospect, he’d just finished warming up. He was living alone in rural Connecticut, swimming in the pond in the mornings, reading in the evenings, and spending six hours every day in a studio behind the house, writing in longhand at a standing desk. He began Sabbath’s Theater, and with it entered a “late period” of staggering power.
It’s the story of Mickey Sabbath, puppeteer and pervert, bereft and longing for death—and it’s the moment when Roth stopped exploring the angles and started going for broke. (It’s also the moment when he fully took up one of his great themes: the relationship between lust and mortality.) Sabbath is in despair, but the effect of Roth’s sustained virtuosity is bracing, even joyful. At the end of that blast from the firehose of Roth’s id, one could almost hear the voice of Portnoy’s Dr. Spielvogel: “Now vee may perhaps to begin.”
And what came next was, improbably, a new beginning. American Pastoral makes use of Nathan Zuckerman, and of the metafictional self-awareness that Roth had cultivated over the previous decade, as an avenue into an immersive and naturalistic novel as imaginatively complete as they come. It begins with Zuckerman at a high school reunion, remembering Seymour “Swede” Levov, his childhood neighborhood’s golden boy. As Zuckerman, doing what novelists do, begins to imaginatively reconstruct Levov’s life, the frame disappears. From Levov’s story we learn about the sublime shallowness of family happiness, and glove manufacturing in New Jersey, and what history can do to blameless human beings. From the perpetual presence of Zuckerman’s consciousness, floating invisibly between reader and story, we learn about the relationship between old age and remembered youth, and how it parallels the relationship between life and fiction. It’s Roth’s most fully realized work.
With American Pastoral Roth began a series of books that take 20th-century American history as their canvas. The broadening of focus—putting his characters in widescreen rather than close-up—seems to have inspired him. The Human Stain is empathically rich and lyrical (although the campus-political-correctness plot was hoary even in 2000), and The Plot Against America is a surprisingly urgent work of alternate history in which the gimmick of a pro-Nazi president provides the opportunity for a deep investigation of Roth’s Newark childhood. (The one failure from this period is I Married a Communist, which is let down by a bitterness that often corrodes Roth’s writing when he turns his attention to bad marriages.)
What all these books have in common is Roth’s mature voice: the amazing combination of unfettered expressive drive and absolute control of effect. Roth sometimes grabs you by the collar and screams in your face, sometimes whispers in your ear as he strokes your thigh, never afraid of putting you off but never willing to relax his hold on your attention. At his greatest he extends his communicative power to every character and position; he reimagines the world as an intense argument and allows every side to make its case.
The Late Works
Armed with that voice, a handful of familiar techniques, and an acute sense of his waning energy, Roth, in his 70s, began a series of shorter novels on themes of aging and death. It’s impossible not to think of them as a prolonged valedictory tour: an artist at his peak, turning his powers on his own decline. Two of them say goodbye to his recurring stand-ins. David Kepesh, the lecherous professor, is undone in his old age by an obsessive affair with a student in The Dying Animal. It’s a concentrated draught of obsessive male lust, as Kepesh struggles to maintain his sexual life and by extension his entire corporeal existence. Nathan Zuckerman, regrettably, gets a less worthy send-off in Exit Ghost, which is flimsy and aimless, and which demonstrates, not for the first time, Roth’s propensity to be derailed by banal political sentiment.
Roth has referred to the other four short novels of this final period as a quartet under the name “Nemeses,” although they’re connected only by a sense of nostalgia and finality. Everyman tells of a man’s life through the prism of his senescence. The focus on bodily decay is unusual and fertile, but much of the material was by now familiar: the unhappy marriage to a hysteric, the happy marriage destroyed by philandering, the solitary old age with its yearning for virility. Indignation saw Roth revisiting the great war of his youth, the one against sexual repression, and it runs like a perfectly tuned vehicle, let down only by an ugly instance of the “depraved homosexual” stereotype. And Nemesis depicts another war of the past, the polio epidemic that struck Newark in 1944, connecting Roth’s beginnings to his late preoccupation with death.
In these last books (excepting The Humbling, an overplotted, undercooked sexual fantasy that’s best forgotten), the pieces of Roth’s high manner are present and expertly managed—the nostalgic free associations, the oddly elevated dialogue (speech in late Roth is more formal than the surrounding narration), the father with an obsolete, thoroughly researched profession. Also present is the conflict at the center of nearly all of his books, rendered here in spare, unhesitant strokes.
The hero of Roth’s work is the individual consciousness, the urgent will to live and write and fuck and be. The antagonists vary (history, religion, propriety, domesticity, your mother, your father, sickness, time, death), but, especially in the later books, with their tragic cast, the war is usually presented as hopeless. And yet the hero continues to struggle. Which is why the ghost that shadows Roth’s fiction is solipsism: When his books fail, it’s because they’re trapped in that raging self, with everything and everyone else reduced to an obstacle.
Some readers have characterized this preoccupation as the titanic male ego imposing itself on the page, boasting and whining and needling and never shutting up even for a second. I can understand that view, and how it might make a reader allergic to Roth’s insistent, assertive sentences. But I also know many readers, men and women, who turn to Roth’s work for inspiration in the fight against everything that wants us to be quiet, to behave, to stop causing trouble. This, more than the technical achievement, may be why he’s so popular with writers. To write is to struggle—against your own limits, and against everything hostile that you’ve allowed to plant a flag within you. Roth gave no quarter in that struggle, and in his work he turned it into an epic.