Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mars-Jones on Roth: WTF?

I ALWAYS READ Adam Mars-Jones's pieces in the London Review of Books, even when I am not at all curious about the book he is reviewing, because he is consistently intelligent and often provocative.  I also just like the way he writes. I had been waiting to read his review of Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound, which appeared in January, until I had read the book, so I only got to it a few days ago. The review is lengthy, eight 4-columned LRB pages, more about Roth's career than about Pierpont's book, and, it seems to me, utterly wrong on a number of points.

Okay, my seeing M-J as wrong probably simply has to do with my liking Roth's novels much more than Mars-Jones does. This can happen with one's favorite critics.

But a number of pronouncements in Mars-Jones review seem bizarrely ungrounded. His final sentence, for instance:

   Even allowing for some overcast days, Philip Roth's writing life since Sabbath's Theater represents an extraordinary Indian summer of creativity, balancing the long strange stretch, becalmed in mid-career, when he tried to deform his raging talent into subtlety.

First of all, I though they called it "St. Martin's summer" over there.  Second, I'm relieved that Mars-Jones was impressed by Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain, at least. But, on the whole--what the fuck?! 

Now, I can see that The Ghost Writer and Patrimony attempt (and achieve) subtlety, even though Zuckerman stands on a copy of Henry James to eavesdrop in the former and a holocaust survivor recounts his sexual escapades in Hitler's Berlin in the latter, but My Life as a Man, The Anatomy Lesson, The Counterlife, The Facts, Deception, Operation Shylock...too subtle? Sophisticated, sure, lots of metafictional fast-and-loose going on, but has Roth really left his rage, his extravagance, his humor, his willingness to go too far out of these books? The author who lets his fictional alter ego get the last word in his autobiography, who comes up with "Diasporism," with Alvin Pepler, with Mordecai Lippman, was straining and failing to achieve subtlety? No.  Nope. No way.

Speaking of Lippman...Mars-Jones is not impressed with Roth's willingness to let various beyond-the-pale characters get up on a soapbox and stay there for pages.

What this method produces in The Counterlife is a gridlock of voices. Only if drama is defined as the grinding together of opposites, each intensified to the highest pitch, does Roth count as an accomplished dramatist. 

"The yoking together of of extreme positions and a cryptic indeterminacy," Mars-Jones goes on to say, is unlikely to "produce either a sophisticated model of the world or a satisfying experience of reading."

Or is it? It strikes me that what Mars-Jones is talking about here is the tension Hegel found in Antigone that made it the greatest of the Greek tragedies, or the polyphony Bakhtin saw in Dostoyevsky. A sophisticated model of the world is exactly what it produces, according to Bakhtin on the novel.

Then there's this: "Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel's flesh." No, they don't. Calvino? Perec? Auster? Any technique can go dead when practiced without imagination, when ham-fistedly imitated, but postmodern "games" only make novels more interesting when a master is playing the game, and the Roth of The Counterlife was such a master. To dismiss this whole approach of fiction so off-handedly is the gesture of a know-nothing, and I still can't quite believe M-J stooped to it.

As for The Plot against America, according to M-J, the "development of the situation" lacks "relentlessness." What, I say again, the fuck? That book was so relentless it scared me into an insomniac night or two. Roth made something that did not happen so believable I was waiting for the knock on the door. If it had been any more relentless, I would have had a stroke.  Maybe you have to live here...

No comments: