Saturday, August 25, 2007

Philip Roth/MY LIFE AS A MAN

I have mixed feelings about Roth. He can at times be very funny. He can at times be very insightful, particularly about the conflicts between the sexes. And then there's the sex - usually a lot of sex in a Roth book, too. (Now, I'm not really a fan of literary pornography, but Roth wins me over because he manages to be funny about sex.) And he writes - sometimes - quite beautifully.

On the other hand, the authorial persona is hard to like. You always feel that the first person narrator is a thinly-disguised version of Roth himself, and that the Roth being revealed is a shrill, vain, self-obsessed neurotic.

Probably that is nowhere more true than in this 1974 novel, which is, I think, the first appearance of the Nathan Zuckerman character who has become Roth's regular literary alter ego in later novels.

I didn't feel that the experimental conceit Roth used here (two short fictions by 'Zuckerman', followed by a longer Zuckerman autobiography, attempting to give three different, complementary but inconsistent versions of Zuckerman's disastrous relationships with women) was very satisfying. To me, they felt more like three pieces of writing on related, overlapping themes that had been hopefully thrown together in hindsight, rather than having been originally conceived and executed as parts of a coherent whole.

The book would appear to be an attempt to exorcise the demons that haunted Roth from his tempestous first marriage (which, exactly like Zuckerman's marriage in the book, ended in acrimonious divorce after a few short years, and was followed little after that by the ex-wife's death in a car accident, possibly a wilful suicide). It is largely a hymn of hate against the woman, and an extended - but less than fully convincing - attempt at self-justification, self-exculpation by Zuckerman/Roth. Hell, the topic itself makes for uncomfortable enough reading, without the addition of the constant speculation it engenders as to how much this is actually Roth's own life he is parading before us.

There is some fine writing here. Some of the early episodes from Zuckerman's childhood are particularly arresting. And there are some great lines, great jokes in it too. (Curiously, the one that sticks in my mind best is an observation on the annoying habit of an elderly aunt who, while listening to evangelical rallies on the radio in the evening, would be constantly clearing her throat "as if expecting to be called upon to speak next". Oddly enough, this is presented as a snippet from a short story written by the 'wife' figure in the second of the Zuckerman short stories - a frame within a frame within a frame.)

In the end, however, it drags. The protagonist does nothing to win our sympathy: rather, his protracted whining and navel-gazing eventually become merely tedious, and I found I spent the last 50 pages or so waiting rather impatiently for the book to end.

And then, of course, it didn't really end. Another common quirk - or flaw - of Roth's work: a lack of development, a lack of conclusion. The closing gag in 'Portnoy's Complaint' is of course that the session with the psychoanalyst is only just about to begin - and the elaborate sexual history we've just been told has presumably been just a sort of mental rehearsal by the patient of what he thinks he might say. 'My Life As A Man' leaves you with much the same feeling at the end, that after 300-odd pages of huffing and puffing, we've only just reached the beginning; yes, the same sense of anti-climax as with 'Portnoy', but without the compensation of a final joke, and without the feeling of having heard such an entertaining story first.

Erratum: I had forgotten that the narrator/"author" in this book is in fact called Tarnopol (somehow a less memorable name!); Zuckerman is his literary alter ego, protagonist of the two long short stories which open the book.


angelle said...

i recently read american pastoral, my first roth. and while i thought it was decently good, the whole zuckerman thing seemed so pointless to me. it was like, why bother?? he makes an appearance for the first 30 pages and disappears forever. i don't get that.

moonrat said...

The New York times did this ridiculous survey of some undisclosed readership a year ago. Their goal was to find "the best novel of the last 25 years" and generally their conclusion was that with the exception of Toni Morrison's BELOVED nothing but Philip Roth was worth reading. I don't know how to paste links in comments, but if you don't mind pasting the article is here:

I have to admit this whole thing made me a little cranky and has turned me off to Roth. Can he really be that great? Or is it that intellectuals think they're supposed to rhapsodize about him? It makes me self-righteously pleased to see you both with mixed feelings. Although I've never even read the guy. there somewhere I should start?

Froog said...

I haven't read it, but I think his first book, 'Goodbye, Columbus', might be worth a look. It made a decent movie, after all. And 'Portnoy's Complaint' is something of a modern classic - the funniest book about sex I've ever read, although also rather discomfiting in parts.

A tip for making links here in the comments: use the Blogger composition page to create an embedded link, then switch to the HTML view and cut&paste that. And ta-daa, you have a nice embedded link in your comment.

angelle said...

i just wondered why he got away with something like introducing a character that never shows up ever again as the narrator (and he lapses into first person for the "real" progtagonist sometimes). i mean i thought the content and themes of the story were interest in itself, but i didn't know how he got away with the construction. is it because he's ROTH? because i think if i had submitted a manuscript like that, it never would have made it through. hell, if roth had been in one of my workshops, that would have been the first thing i dinged him on.