This is a study of the contemporary American novelist, Philip Roth. Reading alongside a number of his contemporaries and focusing particularly on his later fiction, it offers a view of Roth as an intellectually adventurous and stylistically brilliant writer who constantly reinvents himself in surprising ways. At the heart of this book are a number of readings of Roth's works both in terms of their relationships with each other and with fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Pynchon, Tim O'Brien, Bret Easton Ellis, Stanley Elkin, Howard Jacobson and Jonathan Safran Foer. The book identifies as a thread running through all of Roth's work the use of paradox, both as a rhetorical device and as an organising intellectual and ideological principle.
This book offers an overview of the career of Philip Roth, with particular emphasis on his later work, and an assessment of his contribution to contemporary American fiction. Rather than attempting to survey all of Roth's work, it concentrates on the second half of his career, from the publication of The Ghost Writer (1979) to The Plot Against America (2004). The book considers some of the ways in which Roth's generic experimentation appropriates, complicates and finally parodies aspects of both realism and postmodernism, making connections between these texts and works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Pynchon, Tim O'Brien and Bret Easton Ellis. Moreover, it discusses Roth's treatment of morality, mortality and masculinity in what it considers to be his masterpiece, Sabbath's Theater (1995), comparing it with a short story by Stanley Elkin and a novel by Howard Jacobson that share many of its themes.
Trials are ubiquitous in the fiction of Philip Roth. From Peter Tarnopol's lengthy divorce litigation in My Life as a Man (1974) to the historical court case of John Demjanjuk that dominates the opening of Operation Shylock (1993), the trial is one of Roth's favourite tropes. This chapter argues that the four books which comprise the Zuckerman Bound series – The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983) and The Prague Orgy (1985) – represent a detailed exploration of the ethical and aesthetic conflicts faced by Roth. Focusing on Roth's use of legalistic language in these fictions, it suggests that the trials (the tests and ordeals) which Nathan Zuckerman (the protagonist of all four books) undergoes not only reflect Roth's paradoxical responses to the critical reception of his earlier work by Jewish readers but also function as metaphors for the ways in which, historically, Jews have often judged, and been judged, by themselves and others.
Generic experimentation in My Life as a Man, The Counterlife, The Facts, Deception and Operation Shylock
Philip Roth has been both lauded and criticised for what John McDaniel (in the first monograph on Roth, published in 1974) calls his ‘commitment to social realism’. According to McDaniel, Roth's realism is part of a moral vision that indicates ‘an abiding respect for life’. This chapter considers some of the ways in which Roth's generic experimentation, which can be traced from his early novel My Life as a Man (1974), through The Counterlife (1986), The Facts (1988), Deception (1990) and Operation Shylock (1993), appropriates, complicates and finally parodies aspects of both realism and postmodernism, making connections between these texts and works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Pynchon, Tim O'Brien and Bret Easton Ellis.
Morality, mortality and masculinity in Sabbath’s Theater
In an ‘interview with [him]self’ on The Great American Novel in 1973 (reprinted in Reading Myself and Others), Philip Roth recalls how he came upon a letter from Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which Melville describes his elation upon completing Moby Dick. In a feature on Roth published on the eve of the publication of Portnoy's Complaint, Albert Goldman traced the origins of the novel to the childhood larks of Roth and his peers. This chapter discusses Roth's treatment of morality, mortality and masculinity in what it considers to be his masterpiece, Sabbath's Theater (1995), comparing it with a short story by Stanley Elkin and a novel by Howard Jacobson that share many of its themes.
Utopian dreams and rituals of purification in the ‘American Trilogy’
Philip Roth's fiction has always been characterised by the tension between the individual capacity for self-determination and the deterministic forces of history; between seductive dreams of harmony, idealism, and purity and the troubling realities of discord, disillusionment and corruption; between the desire to exert control, impose order, and explain, and the impulse to break free from all constraints; to revel in anarchy, chaos and disorder; and to celebrate the indeterminate, the unknowable and the inexplicable. Nowhere are these tensions more clearly articulated than in what has become known as his ‘American Trilogy’ of novels: American Pastoral (1997), I Married A Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). This chapter explores Roth's use of what it calls the ‘anti-pastoral’ mode in his ‘American Trilogy’ of novels. It applies the term ‘nature anxiety’ metaphorically to define Roth's deconstruction of the Utopian dreams and rituals of purification with which many of the characters in the American Triology delude themselves and deceive others.
Rewriting history and retreating from trauma in The Plot Against America
The publication of The Plot Against America (2004) was attended with more fanfare and controversy than any of Philip Roth's books since Portnoy's Complaint (1969). Just as Portnoy had been heralded as the publishing event of 1969 long before its actual appearance, so The Plot Against America was trailed by a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign which exploited rumours that the novel's title alluded to the events of 9/11 and which included the dissemination of extracts from the book prior to its publication. In spite of Roth's own repeated denials that the book was intended as an oblique or symbolic commentary on George W. Bush's ‘war against terror’, many early reviewers read the novel as, and many readers bought the book anticipating, a political allegory. This chapter looks at The Plot Against America alongside Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) as studies of the relationship between history and fiction, trauma and imagination. So many reviewers couched their critiques in terms of the realism, or otherwise, of Roth's and Foer's novels.