Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Does Philip Roth have a magnum opus?

MUCH ENJOYED THE double-barreled page one reviews of the new biographies of Roth and Mailer  in the NYTBR a month ago, especially the review of the Roth bio by Martin Amis, provocative enough to provoke the man himself to write in frosty correction.

The observation that lingered in the mind, though, was from the Graydon Carter review of the Mailer bio. "Unlike his contemporaries Salinger, Capote, Styron, Roth, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Heller, and others," Carter writes, "he [Mailer] produced no single volume that captured and continues to capture the hearts and minds of successive generations." Certainly true, methinks.

But, methought further, does Roth really have such a volume? Carter mentions Portnoy's Complaint, which, yes, every bookish person my age read. But unlike the other novels Carter mentions--Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast at Tiffany's, all of which I happen to know high school and college age people continue to read--I don't know of many people much younger than I who pick up Portnoy. It's not often assigned. It may not even be on on Spark Notes, that near infallible guide to What's Canonical Now.

It happened to be about a month ago, too, that I was finishing up a lifelong-learners community course sort of thing on The Great Gatsby. The members of the class wanted to talk about Great American Novels--a bankrupt category, to be sure, in academic literary criticism, but enjoyable enough to kick around in a desert-island-discs sort of way. We mentioned Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Gatsby itself of course.  Are there more modern candidates? they asked. Well, maybe Beloved, I said. Housekeeping.  The Things They Carried.

I've been thinking: Roth is, to my mind, the great American novelist of his generation, the greatest born between the two world wars. Yet is there a particular volume among his many excellent novels of which one would say, "oh, you have to read that one--everybody has to read that one." I can't think of one. And I've read them all.  Loved them all. I ran the same question by a literary friend.  American Pastoral, perhaps? Maybe, but even that one seems deeply idiosyncratic in a way.  The Counterlife? That's my personal favorite, but you would have to read the trilogy first. Portnoy's Complaint? I think the feminism that burst upon us about the very same moment as Alexander Portnoy made his novel more or less obsolete as anything but a 1960s period piece.

This worries me. Roth is the great novelist of his generation, but does he have an As I Lay Dying, a Huckleberry Finn?  Jesus, does he even have a Slaughterhouse-Five?

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