The Treacherous Imagination: When You Read Philip Roth, You Feel under Attack and Want to Hit Back. Rick Gekoski Pays Tribute to American Fiction's Greatest Fighter

Article excerpt

In Roth's 1998 novel, I Married a Communist, the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is in high school, learning what, and how, to read. There is nothing genteel about his initiation: "Talking about books as though something were at stake in a book. Not opening up a book to worship it or to be elevated by it or to lose yourself to the world around you. No, boxing with the book."

Revisiting Roth over the past few months, I have been struck by how full of ring craft his mature fiction is, how it circles and jabs, steps back, pushes at you relentlessly and follows with an uppercut. When you read Roth, you not only feel under attack, you want to fight back. I can recall few of his novels that don't provoke an occasional but overwhelming desire to shout "Will you shut up!" at a character or the author: to counter-attack ("counter" is one of Roth's favoured terms). How often, reading him, do we pause for breath, put the book down, pace about, sit down, chuck a pail of water over our heads?

Roth's first two novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), are measured, accurate and correct, largely the effect of reading too much Henry James as a graduate student. It was not until 1969, ten years after his first book--the marvellous collection of stories Goodbye, Columbus--that he produced a voice which felt comfortably his own. Portnoy's Complaint had a huge effect on my generation of readers and seemed, somehow, to legitimate the way we really were. The men, anyway. Rather embarrassing, but freeing, too. People began to think, talk and write differently after Portnoy. All of a sudden, the mainstream novel felt fresher, more outlandishly authentic.

Alexander Portnoy's couch-bound monologue of maternal fixation and erotic compulsion--he scans the shelves of the fridge for potential sexual partners--is sufficient, almost, to give kvetching a bad name. He is defined by appetite, omnivorously mouthy: eating, licking, talking. He's not much of a listener, though, being less engaged by what comes out of his girlfriend's mouth than by what he can put into it.

This is a joke in bad taste, prompted and sanctioned by the new Roth, who loves the knockabout humour of the street corner. Here, he combines what he calls "the aggressive, the crude and the obscene at one extreme and something a good deal more subtle and, in every sense, refined at the other". Both playful and serious, the Portnoy monologue strikes a new tone and captures perfectly the incessant buzzing and swarming of consciousness.

Portnoy's Complaint sold and sold, but if it set Roth up, it also set him back. He was uncomfortable with everything but the increased income and couldn't tolerate the ceaseless, almost prurient interest in his every movement. He had no wish, or perhaps no immediate capacity, to write about it.

During the next decade, among other works, he wrote two David Kepesh novels, The Breast and The Professor of Desire; Our Gang, a parody of the Nixon years; and The Great American Novel, which is, naturally, about baseball. The predominant note is Kafkaesque: a man turns into a gigantic female breast, the president drowns in a plastic bag, midgets play professional baseball. Here is a writer learning new tricks, his deeper concerns hibernating, in abeyance.


Enter Zuckerman, Roth's finest alter ego, first as the purported author of a comic quartet of books that finally deal with the post-Portnoy fallout, and later, and more profoundly, in The Counterlife (1986). It is the central Roth text, exhausting but enthralling and frantic with thinking, talking and arguing. We forgive all the fuss because the issues are of consequence, the prose is as balanced as the characters are askew and the controlling intelligence is lucid and compelling.

At his brother's funeral, Zuckerman can't deliver the expected, conventional eulogy, wishing instead to compose a counter-story about Henry's sexual life. …