Hooked

My Life as a Man

by Philip Roth
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 330 pp., $8.95

Some years ago Philip Roth suggested that reality had become so inventive and prolific, so replete with improbable characters like Eisenhower and his political descendants, that the writer of fiction was more or less out of a job in America. What could he do, faced with imaginative competition of the kind the world threw at him every day? That Nixon should proceed to act out in comic and scaring fact the hypothetical and mildly satirical scenario of Our Gang is a wonderful tribute to Roth’s moral intelligence, but it is also a threat, in his terms, to his vocation as a novelist. With such a president and such a country, who needs novels?

We all do, of course. When paranoia becomes reality, the whole of sanity is left to fiction. But then sanity is not at all easy to invent, and tends to prefer rather dull narrative modes. In recent years Roth has chosen to go the other way. Portnoy’s Complaint was an attempt to outbid extravagant reality—if life often looks like a long joke, then the long virtuoso telling of a joke may well serve as a novel. In Our Gang he simply (and brilliantly) accepted reality’s invitation to madness; and in The Breast he suggested something of reality’s own madness in the metaphor of a man turned into a thinking mammary gland. In that context, ordinary life itself seems strange, diffuse, elusive:

In the midst of the incredible, the irredeemably ordinary appears to remind me of the level at which most of one’s life is usually lived. Really, it is the silliness, the triviality, the meaninglessness of experience that one misses most in a state like this….

Once the ordinary becomes extraordinary then ordinariness can be seen as a form of grail, and one might expect a novelist to set off in search of a lost normality; of the spaces, as it were, between life’s exaggerations. This is partly what Roth is doing in My Life as a Man, but only partly. His main task seems to be to speak now without parables and hyperbole, to give up the narrative modes of paranoia, and realistically portray the horrors of the private life of one married, harried man; to create something like The Breast without its element of fable, or Portnoy’s Complaint without its vaudeville and histrionics, or Our Gang without the all too verifiable historical existence of Richard Nixon. He is writing a novel, that is, hoping to offer a believable imagined world in which daily demonstrations of the unbelievable can take place.

My Life as a Man is a very self-conscious piece of work, a bit prone to mistake apologies for repentance, and self-accusation for self-scrutiny. The imaginary writer of the whole text, one Peter Tarnopol, a distraught and witty Jewish novelist whose supposed career bears a striking resemblance to Roth’s own, places himself ironically “among the nation’s top narcissists in the arts,” which is a …

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