Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Juice or Gravy?"-Philosophies of Composition by Roth, Poe, and Sartre

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Juice or Gravy?"-Philosophies of Composition by Roth, Poe, and Sartre

Article excerpt

This essay suggests that, in his seldom-read "Juice or Gravy?" (1994), Roth surreptitiously dramatizes the conflict between predestination and volition, relative to biographical writing. Roth wrote "Juice or Gravy?" as the "Afterword to the Twenty-Fifth-Anniversary Edition" of Portnoy's Complaint (1969), though he previewed the essay in the New York Times Book Review (18 Sept. 1994).1 "Juice or Gravy" has garnered sparse commentary among Roth scholars, perhaps because of its elusive significance. Roth, ostensibly recalling the early days of his career as a writer, remembers having visited a cafeteria where one of the workers would incessantly ask "Juice or gravy?" ("Afterword" 283) in order to top off the patron's serving of roast beef. Roth also claims to have found, in that cafeteria, a piece of paper containing nineteen arbitrary sentences that became the first lines of his major novels. Incredible, to be sure. Moreover, not a single reference to Portnoy's Complaint exists in "Juice or Gravy?", even though readers might have expected an afterword to an anniversary printing of the novel to offer commentary on the misguided biographical readings that greeted its initial publication in 1969. "Juice or Gravy?" appears to do none of that, and one suspects that confusion over the meaning and publication venue of the odd 1994 afterword led to its excision from subsequent 1994 printings of the novel. Indeed, most 1994 editions available today (as listed by Internet book dealers) do not contain the postscript.2

Still, I will argue here that the afterword certainly pertains to the early reception of Portnoy's Complaint, insofar as "Juice or Gravy?" draws, beyond the fatalism of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846), on Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness (1943, L'être et le néant) to parody misguided biographical-that is to say, fatalistic-readings that ignore the transformative and transcendent qualities of literary narrative. Whereas Poe advances a deterministic account of the writing process, Sartre (in his preMarxist era) champions composition as existential "free invention" (Sartre 518).3 Such contexts are consistent with one scholar's claim that "Juice and Gravy?" explores free will, determinism, and "the folly" of resorting to the accidents of experience "to find coherence in Roth's career," though these comments are made without reference to Sartre (Shostak 1-2).4 In a related vein, my attention to Poe and Sartre suggests, for reasons targeting the deterministic underpinnings of unqualified biographical interpretation, that "Juice or Gravy?" is an entirely apt, however philosophically esoteric, afterword to the twenty-fifth anniversary printing of Portnoy's Complaint.

My attention to these texts and contexts takes account of the possibility that the "The Philosophy of Composition" is in some measure a hoax that discredits deterministic renderings of the creative process.5 So, too, I suggest, is "Juice or Gravy?", which commences with a matter-of-fact tone but which ultimately rivals Poe's specious, because fictitious and fatalistic, "The Philosophy of Composition." Roth's narrator, who makes a point of mentioning his (and, of course, Roth's) "M.A. in literature" ("Afterword" 277-78), would surely be familiar with Poe's claim about having composed "The Raven" (1845) by first writing its conclusion and by then working formulaically toward that end: "Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen." Hence, the reference to causation in Poe's essay: "It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention" (Poe, "Philosophy"13).

Roth, in turn, commences at the opposite end of the causal spectrum: his narrator claims that nineteen of his works arose from arbitrary lines he found inscribed on a sheet of paper at a cafeteria, for each of which he then felt compelled to write a full narrative. …

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