Philip Roth: Fiction and Power

By Bloom, James | Philip Roth Studies, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Philip Roth: Fiction and Power


Bloom, James, Philip Roth Studies


Patrick Hayes. Philip Roth: Fiction and Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 272 pp. $85.00.

Philip Roth, Patrick Hayes argues, remains "such an interesting writer today" in part because of his "robust challenge [. . .] to seemingly sensible" moves in recent decades to align literary study with the "increasingly fashionable [. . .] ethics talk" promoted by academic humanists (1-2). Roth's fiction, in Hayes's reading, and Hayes's own argument, casts this popular brand of humanism as antagonistic to the "literary value" (a phrase that reverberates throughout this book) with which Hayes identifies Roth. In support of this argument Hayes surveys Roth's oeuvre and documents his career-long resistance to "the virtue racket" that the antagonist Nathan Zuckerman denounced a generation ago in Zuckerman Unbound (234). According to Hayes, power-seeking trumps virtue as a justification for both making and experiencing literature. In his view Roth stands out as a preeminent exemplar of this "post-Nietzschean way of valuing literature" (3). In discussing the "distinctively Nietzschean dimension" of The Counterlife (131), for example, Hayes characterizes Roth's "way of using literature" as enabling him and his readers "to think about the self [as] at once extra-moral and engagingly evaluative" with "a depth [. . .] that can make ethics talk seem flat-footed and banal" (131). Instead of banal "ethics talk," Roth has undertaken "a longstanding exploration of the aesthetics of identity" (140): a series of opportunities for readers to discover "enticing possibilities of self-creation" (147).

Even though Roth had one early alter-ego sum up his career succinctly, with the phrase "literature got me into this" (My Life 195), for Hayes Roth's approach to literature derives from a largely philosophical legacy. Thus, understanding the "depth and sophistication" Hayes ascribes to Roth means revisiting, first of all, Hegel, Habermas, and Adorno, and above all, looking to Nietzsche as preeminent among Roth's "intellectual formations" (23). Roth needed, in Hayes's view, Nietzsche's help in "realiz[ing] his capacity to think beyond good and evil" (26). For a more recent understanding of what Roth had to overcome, Hayes cites Adorno's advocacy of art as a conciliatory and adversarial "rational critique of reason" (8). Hayes examines this legacy's domestication in America by two of the most influential movements in postwar literary study: New Criticism and the sensibility identified with "the New York Intellectuals." These movements grappled with widespread conceptions of literature as a source of "edification" and "redemption." Under the influence of these movements' "seductive banalities," Roth made his "false start as writer" (15). In Roth's view, his career began with a series of such "false starts" (Raab). Fiction and Power consists of readings of a representative selection of Roth's fiction (thirteen books in all) to show how he overcame these "false starts" and developed from "a liberal intellectual in an age of happy problems" (31) into American literature's preeminent iconoclast. "Uncorrected by piety," as Roth wrote of Murray Ringold (Communist 2; Hayes 19), Roth held fast to this iconoclasm while evolving through successive "upheavals in style" (59) as the stylistically versatile performer who followed When She Was Good with Portnoy's Complaint; Deception with Operation Shylock.

By analyzing these incessant efforts to "engage with [. . .] shifting powers of culture forms" and "redefine what counts as serious literature" (79), Hayes deepens our appreciation of Roth's "restless curiosity and [the] freewheeling range of [his] literary intelligence" (28). For Hayes, this intelligence is reflected in Roth's contributions and responses to "the discussion of literary value among writers and intellectuals in postwar America" (27) and in his conceptual affinities with and resistance to a range of writers, thinkers, intellectual movements, and cultural milieux in whose company Roth seldom appears: the New Liberalism, Richard Rorty, Elvis Presley, Edward R. …

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