Saturday, September 6, 2008

Jealousy and Indignation

There is no novelist I admire more than Philip Roth. His novel American Pastoral might be the best novel of the twentieth century, and there is great debate about whether it is even his best novel. When the New York Times polled contemporary novelists about which they believed was the best novel of the last 25 years, American Pastoral was one of the runners-up to Toni Morrison's Beloved. Roth's novels actually received more best novel votes than Morrison's, but the Roth vote was deeply divided among partisans of this Roth or that. Of twenty-one novels that received more than one "best" vote from the Times panelists, six were written by Roth.

Debates about which novel is better or best might miss the point -- we go to the novel because each one offers us a singular experience -- but there is no disputing that some writers do more with the form than others. In Roth's case, he has tried everything. Early in his career, he wrote a classic coming-of-age novella ("Goodbye, Columbus"), an uncharacteristically (for him) Jamesian bloat (Letting Go), several screwing-around comic novels (Our Gang, The Great American Novel, The Breast), and the twentieth century's definitive dramatic monologue (Portnoy's Complaint.) Portnoy alone, or even "Goodbye, Columbus," would be a career-defining accomplishment for almost any writer. But Roth didn't even begin to hit his stride until he wrote his first Nathan Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer, the first of nine (to date) starring Roth's alter-ego, a novelist whose career we watch unfold alongside Roth's. The Zuckerman books themselves have great range, from the postmodern play with the Bernard Malamud and Anne Frank stories in The Ghost Writer to the Stephen Dixonesque alternative storylines of The Counterlife to the mature observer-narrator strategies of the American trilogy written in the 1990's-- American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, which constitute Roth's best and most important work-- to the deep reckonings with mortality and the will to be vital in old age in the final Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost.

Note that we haven't yet even discussed vast and important swaths of Roth's body of work. I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the dark, frank sexual reckonings of the Kepesh books, or the timeless meditation on death in Everyman, or the play with biography and identity in the "Philip Roth" series, or the profane wisdom of the standalone Sabbath's Theater (my favorite, favorite Roth novel.)

So it is with high expectation that I went to the bookstore last week and bought the audiobook version of Roth's latest, Indignation. I bought the audiobook because the print version won't be available for a few weeks, and I couldn't wait any longer. I have now listened to it three times, twice straight-through, and I can tell you that although I thought it might be impossible for Roth to avoid repeating himself -- he's nearly thirty books into his career, he's in his late seventies, and he's exhausted nearly every narrative and structural strategy available to novelists of any generation and invented several new ones -- I was wrong. Indignation is something new altogether, a didactic anti-war tract masquerading as a ghost story masquerading as a bildungsroman. Boxes within boxes within boxes, yet the reader is never put-off or confused -- such is Roth's undersung craft of clarity. It is a feat he achieves by way of structure, mostly, and also by avoiding the temptation to overcook the language. Despite a profusion of omniscient novelistic conceits, the narrative throughout remains firmly grounded in psychological realism. Whenever we are with a character, we inhabit the character fully. We buy every word. Every moment is fully realized, is deeply believable, and ultimately contributes to the deep emotional payoff the novel's ending offers the reader.

I fear giving a proper review here, because this is one of those novels whose unfolding secrets open out not only onto pleasures, but also onto thematic discoveries, and I don't want to rob the reader of either. But I do want to say, for the reader wary of tricks, Indignation isn't a trickster novel. Indignation is a profoundly moral novel that takes narrative strategies often deployed toward base ends and transforms them into something artful, tragic, and deeply beautiful.

What has all this to do with my book or our tour (the ostensible subject of this blog, yes?) The title of this post is "Jealousy and Indignation," and, frankly, I'm jealous jealous jealous of Roth's skill, his craft, his intelligence, his willingness to take big risks, and his ability late in life to turn nearly everything he writes into something of immediate and lasting importance. And I'm indignant at my own inability, at age 32, to be as good as he is, and at the whole of our literature, broad and deep as it can be, to not often fail the tests of seriousness, entertainment, and clarity that Roth passes with such fluency every twelve to eighteen months. (It took me four years to write my first modest book of stories!)

This morning I'm working again on what I hope will be the final revision of my first novel, a manuscript that owes much to what I have learned about novel-making and novel-structuring from Philip Roth. Once again, I aim for the standard of risk-taking, ambition, and excellence he continues to raise, and, knowing that I will fall short, hope that straining toward his height and reach will cause my inevitable failure to be a noble and worthy one, far better than any lesser success I could have achieved had I been chasing a lesser champion.


Anonymous said...

This blog is very good. You guys keep it up.

kransberg-talvi said...

Keep offering in depth reviews, Kyle, because it helps a reader to better understand what makes a novel so effective.

I'll be reading Devil's Territory next.