I'm never going to read Philip Roth again. I don't care if he wins another Pulitzer. If he does, I'll read the book by proxy. I don't care if he appears to me in another anxiety dream. I'm done. If he passes away, I'll feel bad that I wrote this post, but only for a while. I'll deal with it.
Arrrgh, PhilipfuckingRoth. I've been sweet and the most patient of readers, but American Pastoral was like the dentist's drill on a rotten jaw tooth. Reading him feels like you're late for work and your shoes and purse and keys are being held hostage by a ranting lunatic in sad, gray underwear who has got both morning breath and a mean streak a mile wide.
I want my props though, because I read 5 of his books. Five! Spread out over more than a couple of decades. My 20something, 30something, 40something, etc. bookworm self just never warmed up to him. I'll never stop being mystified at those who are fans of his work.
These are the books I read:
1. When She Was Good. I was attracted to this one because I always liked the "little girl with the curl" rhyme. (Come to think of it, Philip Roth reminds me of that little girl.) Lucy Nelson seems like a less dangerous version but equally intense version of Merry Levov in American Pastoral. Roth seems to enjoy grinding her down in scenes with that sick-making husband of hers, Roy. I got my copy from my aunt. It had a purple dust jacket. I can't imagine why she bought it or imagine her reading it. I bet she flung it, and that's how I ended up with it and then on this multi-decade slog. Thanks, Auntie.
2. Goodbye, Columbus. Even when Roth was in his late 20s, he was a ranting old guy. I loathed this book, especially the title story. Why did it get so much praise? There was something terribly wrong with the American reading public's taste back in the late 1950s. There were definitely some disturbing fissures. I cite this and also Atlas Shrugged as an example.
Almost-read: Portnoy's Complaint. I was in middle school, and I heard it was filthy. Naturally, I wanted to read filth. I grew bored, skimming and searching for choice passages. I finally abandoned the book at the point where Portnoy was in the bathroom (masturbating, if I remember correctly) and his mom kept standing at the door, knocking and shouting inquiries about his bowel movements.
Almost-read: The Breast. I was in college, and trying to read *serious* modern American literature. This was short (96 pages). I could do it...or not! Professor David Kepesh turns into a life-sized female breast. I hadn't encountered Kafka yet, and I thought this was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard of. Back onto the library shelf it went.
3. The Human Stain. This is the only Roth book that I actually have some fondness for. I decided to give it a try after reading Quicksand and Passing, both by Nella Larsen. I was irritated that the story was filtered through Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego, but Roth was rocking the irony, and it worked for me. Satisfied, I followed it up with a viewing of the 2003 movie version, starring Anthony Hopkins and Wentworth Miller as the older and younger versions of Coleman Silk, the man with a 50-year-old secret about his identity. Gary Sinise was Zuckerman. (Can you love an actor, and that love is based almost solely on his eyebrows?) The whole cast was excellent, except Nicole Kidman seemed out of place.
4. The Plot Against America. Flushed with success about The Human Stain, I was all ready to read Roth's alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president in 1940, rather than FDR getting a third term. I was expecting something really great like Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle, but Roth's view of events left me feeling flat. He also rushed into a silly ending, like he'd gotten all cranky just as he was coming into the homestretch and needed a nap.
5. American Pastoral. This was the book Roth was pissed at me for not having read in my anxiety dream about him. Still, several years went by before I finally read it. The way it came about was that I couldn't decide which Pulitzer to attack next, so I wrote titles I hadn't read on strips of paper and had The Spawn, who was visiting for the weekend draw one out. Thanks, Kid -- that's ten days of my life I'll never get back again.
Ugh, how did that thing get a Pulitzer? I haven't felt so disillusioned since I flung Atlas Shrugged out the window back in 2005. An interesting premise, but again, everything is filtered through Nathan Zuckerman, and that takes up a chapter or two before the novel gets properly started. Properly raised daughter of a former high school athletic star and a former Miss New Jersey grows up to be a terrorist. But first we've got to wade through the history of glove making. A little goes a long way. The day-to-day routine of raising bulls for breeding? Oh, come on. Maddeningly meandering. And sex! When Roth writes about sex, it's not earthy, like John Updike, or kind of jaunty like Larry McMurtry -- it's revolting. I actually feel nauseated reading descriptions of sex scenes written in his crabby accent. Not only were they gross, they came off as a little perfunctory. A literary cold shower. And what about that fork-in-the-eye ending that was like a half-assed Mobius strip? I had to return to the beginning of the book and Zuckerman's plodding, which didn't improve my feelings for Roth.
So, anyway. Like I said: All done! No more Roth. The closest I even plan to get to him again is by reading Leaving a Doll's House by Claire Bloom. I know I will be able to relate. We both have had our fill of Phil.