The Reality Game

Patrimony: A True Story

by Philip Roth
Simon and Schuster, 238 pp., $19.95

Describing his father in the early pages of “a novelist’s autobiography” boldly titled The Facts, Philip Roth said, “Narrative is the form that his knowledge takes, and his repertoire has never been large: family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew.” And, Roth adds, with a characteristically sharp reversal: “Somewhat like mine.”

The comparison won’t in fact work without a couple of major adjustments. To describe Philip the son, one would want to substitute for “family” a more generic term, “women,” and for “Newark” the profession that has preoccupied, not to say obsessed, him for more than thirty years now, writing. But allowing for exceptions where they have to be made, the comparison’s point is the limited number of themes with which Roth, like his father, has concerned himself, and their close connection with his intimate personal history. It is a major achievement to have written so much in so many modes and inflections on a theme that does not in itself offer a great variety of episodes or human types.

Roth was the son of poor-but-honest parents, a child of Newark’s lower-middle-class Jewish culture. He did better than well at school, and, after much erotic and literary fumbling, he decided to be a writer of fiction. The Korean War and a disastrous first marriage were the major obstacles to a career which on the whole took off quickly and progressed, if not peacefully, at least without catastrophic disturbances. As he himself says, with pardonable exaggeration, his existence has been a string of days alone in a quiet room with a typewriter. His theme is himself almost entirely—though himself in a variety of disguises and impersonations.

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that in reading over the books in order, one finds the same story recurring several times. Details change, names are altered, but the narrative line holds steady. Most persistent of his scenarios is the story of a talented and sensitive but oversubmissive young writer who has to escape from the clutches of an emasculating gorgon (wife, mother, or mistress). It is a story with considerable, though not unlimited, potential. Probably Roth told it best the first time around, in Portnoy’s Complaint, where the liberation of language and fantasy exploded into a grotesque, hilarious saturnalia. Portnoy on Doctor Spielvogel’s couch doesn’t get very close to the therapist’s concerns, and a sensible reader would never want him to. He’s far more fun performing his own private vaudeville.

Playing games with reality, though not an exclusive preoccupation, thus became a big part of Roth’s repertoire, and this gift culminated in 1987 with The Counterlife, a sharp and deliberately provocative anti-novel. The character, for example, who dies apparently seriously and for good in the first chapter, rises inexplicably and dashes off to Israel in the second; a flight from Tel Aviv to London is hijacked in midair and forced to return to its point of takeoff, but proceeds serenely …

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Letters

Herman Roth June 13, 1991