Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Fill of Phil

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.


Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Bahaha, you just killed me with this post. I have authors that I absolutely feel the same way about! I just hit a wall with them and decide I've had quite enough and I've given them more than one chance. I've read The Plot Against America and American Pastoral and wasn't a fan of either. I may still read The Human Stain, it sounds like that one isn't too bad, but I can't say I'll ever be a Roth fan.

Jeane said...

I've always kinda wondered about this author. I knew he was widely popular but the few times I picked up a book of his I was unable to get far. I kept coming across him though, because one of my favorite books is Call It Sleep by Henry Roth, and whenever I looked for another title of his I would come across Philip Roth's works instead. Sounds like I'm not missing much, though.

Teresa said...

Ha! I love this! I've read a couple of Roth's books (Human Stain and Plot Against America) and liked them enough to think maybe I'll read more sometime but not enough to hurry out and do so. I agree that Plot Against America was a disappointment. The writing and all were good, the story wasn't all that creative and then it seemed like he lost his nerve and wouldn't go all the way with his premise. The rushed ending seemed like a cop-out to me.

Anonymous said...

This is excellent news for me, since I've never read a single one of his books. :-D

Care said...

PROPS!! to you for the multi-decade slog. I've only read EVERYMAN and was not as impressed as I thought I was supposed to be. I have not gone out of my way to read anything else. And even if it stumbled onto my path, I think I would step over it.

Care said...

PROPS!! to you for the multi-decade slog. I've only read EVERYMAN and was not as impressed as I thought I was supposed to be. I have not gone out of my way to read anything else. And even if it stumbled onto my path, I think I would step over it.

Carrie#K said...

I've never read more than a few pages of his books, he's either an acquired taste or, as usual, I'm completely out of touch.

Unknown said...

Well you certainly did give him a fair and fighting chance. I read Portnoy's Complaint right when I started college and loved it. I think if you were looking for the dirty parts in middle school you wouldn't find many. And I did love The Plot Against America though I cannot remember the ending at all.

The other few I have tried I did not like much and I've stayed far away from Zukerman.

fantsmacle said...

I was going to suggest reading The Dying Animal, but I'm thinking this is the wrong time to suggest a terrible book by Roth. Why is he revered again?

Unapologetically Mundane said...

"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."

You are the best.

I would read Goodbye, Columbus if it was about my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Otherwise, I think you've scared me off of him.

Tami said...

Oh my . . . had to wait until I could see through the tears of laughter before I could comment! I've never read any Philip Roth, but I've had the same feeling several times over much-acclaimed books that make me wonder who is doing the acclaiming and how much are they paid?

Thanks for your honesty! :)

Unruly Reader said...

You've got me laughing convulsively. I don't like the dude, either. But you lambasted him way better than I could've done.

Anonymous said...

The problem with Roth is he has always been full of himself. He seemed to think he had invented alternative history with Plot Against Amnerica, which he didn't. If you want to read some good alternative history check out virtually anything by Harry Turtledove.

Brad Sinor said...

Sorry, I fogtot to put my name on the last post. All I can do is blame it on no caffinee today.