clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Philip Roth Syllabus

A celebration of the work of one of America’s greatest novelists, who passed away on Tuesday night at the age of 85

Philip Roth The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, American novelist Philip Roth died at the age of 85. The prolific author was both a Pulitzer Prize and (two-time) National Book Award winner, known for his ability to blur reality and fiction, to examine American life (most especially Jewish American life) with a critical lens, and to push the boundaries of the public discourse surrounding sex. To celebrate Roth’s life—and his astoundingly vast bibliography—Ringer staffers meditated on their favorite examples of his work.

Goodbye, Columbus

Sean Fennessey: Reflecting 30 years later upon the work published in his first book, the collection of short stories and title novella Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth wrote of what he called “tribal secrets,” and “the rites and taboos of his clan—about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their embarrassments and ideas of success.” Roth, of course, was the foremost chronicler of Jewish laceration, a figure as consumed by the lust and sensuality of American Jews as what he perceived as their withering insecurity and frailty. But that’s not exactly the relationship I have with his writing. (I’m a stoic Irish Catholic.) Like any mediocre, overly earnest public school kid who liked the library, I had an English teacher who took a shine to me and showed me a new way to think about the world, and he did it with Roth. That teacher gave me a copy of Goodbye, Columbus—his personal copy, as I recall—and inscribed an encouraging note that ended with the epigram “Keep thinking.” It wasn’t the first book he gave away, surely not the last. But I still have it, still paw it from time to time. It’s a memento and a totem.

The first sentence of the novella that opens the book is, “The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.” Plaintive and simple and as metaphorical as you want it to be. One paragraph later, Roth managed to perfectly describe that thing that women do with the bottom of their bathing suits when they rise from the water—“flicked what flesh had been showing back where it belonged.” For Roth, subservient to personal desire and warring with his own libido, it’s an encomium to the power the opposite sex had over him. Specific, economic, obsessive, crude, precise. Roth’s work is something teenage boys of my generation discovered alongside the music of the Smiths, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and AOL chat rooms. Heady stuff, all your problematic faves. Roth’s work has aged in a complicated way, especially the sexualized early writing. And that is undeniably what gave him power over young readers—literalizing the unsaid for consecutive generations. It’s aspiration as perspiration—the heavy-breathing heavyweight. It sticks with me, for better and for worse. Mostly better.

The Ghost Writer

Juliet Litman: Anne Frank is a character in The Ghost Writer. This is not a joke, though the Anne Frank reveal is both funny and a total shock. To explain the gag further would be a major spoiler, and the Zuckerman books have already fallen out of literary fashion for reasons I don’t quite understand. I won’t further contribute to their obsolescence, because they are essential to understanding Roth’s evolution, and Ghost Writer in particular is a testament to his singular position in the American canon.

Part of the wonder of Philip Roth is how he evolved from his early years as a gifted observer and critic of his world to a great bard who interpreted and synthesized any given moment. He came to comment on the weightiest issues with a rare profundity, but he only got there by traveling through the uncanny valley of the Zuckerman books. He is not primarily known as a writer of American gothic, but Ghost Writer is a trippy foray into the private life of writers. A very merry Nathan Zuckerman is haunted by something throughout the book, but Roth subverts the gothic genre by refusing to introduce gloom or trepidation. Instead, Nathan prowls the private life of E.I. Lonoff with glee and curiosity. It’s an unexpected combination that would have stunned Emily Brontë and been unrecognizable to Mary Shelley, and that is why Philip Roth is a master.

Novelists love to pontificate on their own craft to varying degrees of efficacy, and Ghost Writer is a successful part of this tradition. In modern parlance, the novel is a true flex. It’s a display of Roth’s interest in form and genre, as much as it takes up the questions of identity and historical record that define many of his most popular books. Ghost Writer kicked off an essential chapter of Roth, and it’s still a thrill to read.

Sabbath’s Theater

Rob Harvilla: You don’t want to meet Mickey Sabbath, not really. He is described, on the first page of what might actually be Philip Roth’s single most misanthropic novel, as “a short, heavyset, white-bearded man with unnerving green eyes and painfully arthritic fingers who, had he said yes to Jim Henson some thirty-odd years earlier, before Sesame Street started up, when Henson had taken him to lunch on the Upper East Side and asked him to join his clique of four or five people, could have been inside Big Bird all these years.” The wording there, unfortunately, is important. Which is to say that by the end of Chapter 2, Sabbath is masturbating over his mistress’s grave.

Sorry. At his best (or just his most misanthropic), Roth had a way of embarrassing anyone who even attempted to describe his books. Even the champions of Sabbath’s Theater, which won Roth the National Book Award in 1995, allow that Mickey Sabbath is “one of the most loathsome characters in contemporary fiction.” (As for its detractors, Michiko Kakutani dismissed the character’s lengthy and profoundly distasteful exploits as “the depressing gropings of a dirty old man.”) Even in the context of Roth’s fearless and occasionally tasteless career, this book is hard to love but even harder to forget, a 450-page argument that bile, not love, makes the world go round. It is convincing, whether you want to be convinced or not. Which is why today you might see this Sabbath’s Theater quote floating around: “And he couldn’t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.” Floating around on Twitter, I mean. How fucking appropriate.

The Great American Novel

Mallory Rubin: When I heard that Philip Roth had died, I wept. That may seem like a self-indulgent way to start a blurb on my favorite Roth tome, but one of the many things that Roth taught me is that self-indulgence is inextricable from life itself. I immediately texted my dad to make sure he knew I was thinking about him and the summer day when he first put The Great American Novel into my hands. I was in high school, thumbing through the list of approved reading, looking for something fresh. I enjoyed reading and had long since started to view my school books as something much more than obligations, but I was not yet fully a reader, voraciously consuming what I wanted when I wanted, shaping my own worldview with every turn of the page. The Great American Novel is one of the books that helped change that for me. My dad recommended it to me because in addition to liking books, I liked baseball and myth-making, and the 1973 novel about the communist plot to infiltrate America through the Patriot League was a slapstick cocktail tailormade to quench my particular thirst.

You won’t see it listed in every Roth obituary you read this week, but like any great B-side track, there’s something all the more satisfying about loving it despite its standing in the grand scope of its creator’s offerings. It made me want to evangelize, to preach the virtues of a satirical assessment of what our institutions say about us—and of what we can learn about American life through the great American game. I told everyone I could to read it, and some of them did, and after I texted my dad on Tuesday night I saw that I had a message from one of them, telling me how much the book had meant to him.

I can still hear my dad telling me about Gil Gamesh and Gilgamesh; I can still remember the thrill of the “Call me Smitty” opening line and the ensuing relentless commitment to literary references and alliterative acrobatics. Roth has always been obsessed not only with American Jewish identity and male sexuality—Portnoy’s Complaint’s “I fucked my own family’s dinner” remains an unrivaled ribald confession—but with the craft of writing itself. His is a contagious desire to look inward while also saying something about where we all find ourselves, and how we try to cope with, or succumb to, our selth-loathing and shame and appetites. In 1973, there was nothing more American than baseball. It’s true for me still, as is the desire The Great American Novel awoke within me: to find truth in the absurd, transportive power in a turn of phrase, and a special kind of bliss in the Ruppert Mundys.

American Pastoral

Chris Ryan: Don DeLillo once wrote, “The purpose of history is to climb out of your own skin.” That line—taken from his Lee Harvey Oswald novel Libra—always comes back to me when I think about a pair of totemic 1997 novels: DeLillo’s Underworld and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Two great authors, looking back at the American century in the rearview mirror: One saw a mushroom cloud; the other saw everything going up in smoke.

American Pastoral is the story of the Swede—Seymour “Swede” Levov—who built a perfect life in post-WWII America, only to have it collapse as the country tore itself apart in the late-’60s Vietnam era, as he is confronted by an “indigenous American berserk” in his own family. The book is told by Roth’s stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, who hears about the rise and fall of the Swede from Levov’s brother at their 1995 high school reunion. It’s about many things, but at the heart, I think it’s about the lies we tell ourselves about who we are and the country we live in, and how we’re supposed to exist in it. Watching those lies get dismantled as the post-war American Dream comes down with it is one of the most thrilling and discomfiting things I have ever experienced reading.

I think it’s normal for a person to look at their life and feel like it’s small, in comparison to everything else happening around them. That you won’t be remembered, or you won’t make a difference. And maybe you see the world around you and choose to build a fortress to hide away from the parts that don’t suit your vision of what life should be. But what American Pastoral taught me was that history is shaped by people, and people shape history. Whether they want to or not.