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 good line, but the irony doesn’t really carry far enough. Narcissism is a circle you can’t break just by using the word, however boldly and lucidly; and Tarnopol, for all his careful honesty and watchful intelligence, is more interested in multiplying the complex meanings of his dilemma than he is in getting out of it. To be sure, that is his dilemma: how can you get out of a trap when you are the trap.
My Life as a Man is a novel about not being able to write any other novel than the one you turn out to have written. The house of fiction becomes a house of mirrors, and this, presumably, is Roth’s problem as much as Tarnopol’s, since he did write this novel, and not another one. Fair enough: the problem is the theme, the novel enacts the problem. But then such arguments tend to fence with one’s doubts rather than make one entirely happy with the book. There remains a certain triviality there, a sense of the trap too eagerly embraced; an occasional sense of insufficient irony.
In any case, there is nothing I can say here that Roth doesn’t know himself, indeed hasn’t said himself in one form or other in this novel. Not only do we get an autobiographical memoir from Tarnopol (“It remains to be seen,” he writes of himself in the third person, “whether his candor, such as it is, can serve any better than his art”), but we get two of his stories as well, in which he has tried to funnel his experience into fiction, and we get comments on these stories from Tarnopol’s brother and sister, and from other well-wishers; and plenty of variegated analysis of Tarnopol’s plight in general by the same brother and sister, by Tarnopol’s analyst, by Tarnopol’s shrewish wife, by his mistress, by his mistress’s analyst, by her starchy Princeton mother, and repeatedly by Tarnopol himself, in both straight and fanciful versions, running from “What I liked, you see, was something taxing in my love affairs” to a comic guess at God’s view of Tarnopol’s writings: “It is all vanity, isn’t it?”
Tarnopol, around the time of his first big literary success, has married a woman he didn’t love but couldn’t escape. And he still can’t escape her, although after various bloody battles (“my left palm had been cut, up by the thumb, and her wrist was dripping, and God only knows what we looked like—Like a couple of Aztecs fucking up the sacrificial rites”) and a suicide attempt, she has died in a car crash. He has fled to an artist’s colony in Vermont, has written one jaunty story about his pampered youth, before his calamitous marriage; one oblique, Nabokovian version of the marriage itself; and his memoir, which tells it all as it was. But the way it was, was unbelievable: how could he have married a girl because she tricked him by taking someone else’s urine along for a pregnancy test, thereby getting a piece of paper which said positive? How could she die so conveniently in an accident, leaving our hero free at last to live a life he doesn’t know what to do with? “Not True to Life…Maureen’s death is not True to Life. Such things simply do not happen, except when they do….”
But then the unbelievable, always one of Roth’s privileged themes, is a close relation here to the unmanageable, to the personally rather than the generally unbelievable: you can’t believe that this has happened to you. How could Tarnopol stay married to such a woman, fail to find a way out from her persecutions and persistence? How can he now remain so haunted by her as to be able to think of nothing else, permanently wounded, cut off from trust in women and himself? The first of Tarnopol’s stories hints at the disaster to come; the second blows it up into Jewish legend, into the story of the destructive love of a modern Jewish prince for a Gentile maiden, herself the victim of Gentile barbarity; the memoir simply confesses that the whole truth can’t be told and tells what truth it can:
Maybe all I’m saying is that words, being words, only approximate the real thing, and so no matter how close I come, I only come close. Or maybe I mean that as far as I can see there is no conquering or exorcising the past with words—words born either of imagination or forthrightness—as there seems to be (for me) no forgetting it. Maybe I am just learning what a past is.
Slightly too serious, all that; the sense of what words are for, of what words will do, is slightly too narrow. Tarnopol the writer practices better than he preaches. Seriousness, in any event, is one of his chief faults, as he readily admits. Like Neil in Goodbye, Columbus, like Nathan in his own two stories in this book, Tarnopol gives up a nice, sexy, rich, beautiful Jewish girl because he thinks his real life, his life as a man, is elsewhere. He gives her up out of principle rather than masochism, or perhaps out of principle as a subtle form of masochism. Tarnopol himself suggests that he does it because his literary masters, Flaubert and Dostoevsky and James, taught him to expect reality to be “obdurate and recalcitrant and…awful” instead of submissive and welcoming and lovely. For whatever reasons—and Tarnopol has lots more speculation on the subject—this safe, orderly, successful fellow goes out to seek disaster, and finds it in the shape of the hysterical Maureen; finds more disaster than he can handle, and sits now among the wreckage of everything he thought he might have been.
Too serious, then. Tarnopol speaks as if writing were only (failed) therapy, as if his awful marriage were his only subject. So it is, for the moment. But because he can’t write about anything else, and because he can’t write about the marriage in a way that satisfies him, he seems to see writing simply as a fight for sublimation. Either you make art out of disaster, as he says neatly at one point, or you don’t. But what about writing which has nothing to do with any of this? What about writing which miraculously resurrects a buried past, for example, as in these passages from one of Tarnopol’s stories:
During the war, when gasoline was rationed, we would have to walk to visit the grandmothers, traversing on foot five miles of city streets in all—a fair measure of our devotion to those two queenly and prideful workhorses, who lived very similarly in small apartments redolent of freshly ironed linen and stale coal gas, amid an accumulation of antimacassars, bar mitzvah photos, and potted plants, most of them taller and sturdier than I ever was. Peeling wallpaper, cracked linoleum, ancient faded curtains, this nonetheless was my Araby, and I their little sultan…. what is more, a sickly sultan whose need was all the greater for his Sunday sweets and sauces. Oh how I was fed and comforted, washerwoman breasts for my pillows, deep grandmotherly laps, my throne!
…Later still, my exhibitionistic sister will stand exactly in the center of the living-room rug, on the “oriental” medallion, practicing her scales, while my father reads the battlefront news in the Sunday Inquirer and my mother gauges the temperature of my forehead with her lips, each hourly reading ending in a kiss. And I, all the while, an Ingres odalisque languid on the sofa. Was there ever anything like it, since the day of rest began?
The precision of the casual detail, the slightly too melodic flow of the prose, the comedy and discretion of the allusions (Araby, Ingres), the faintly gushing rhetoric (“Oh how I was fed and comforted” “Was there ever anything like it”) all help to sustain a rather soft-centered but very disciplined and very appealing lyricism. Whatever Tarnopol’s problems with words, they are not in evidence here. Or here, where the tone is quite different (Tarnopol is describing his unfinishable novel about his marriage):
By now the various abandoned drafts had gotten so shuffled together and interwoven, the pages so defaced with Xs and arrows of a hundred different intensities of pen and pencil, the margins so tattooed with comments, reminders, with schemes for pagination (Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, letters of the alphabet in complex combinations that even I, the cryptographer, could no longer decode) that what impressed one upon attempting to penetrate that prose was not the imaginary world it depicted, but the condition of the person who’d been doing the imagining: the manuscript was the message, and the message was Turmoil. I had, in fact, found a quotation from Flaubert appropriate to my failure, and had copied it out of my worn volume of his correspondence (a book purchased during my army stint to help tide me over to civilian life); I had Scotch-taped the quotation to the carton bearing those five hundred thousand words, not a one of them juste.
Certainly the fluency of the writing here and the subdued jokes (tattooed margins, the manuscript was the message) make this passage anything but weighty, but they also allow that perfect, throwaway gag at the end. This is not a style you can do anything with—you can’t be as serious as Roth, I suspect, along with Tarnopol, would like to be—but you can do the sort of things Jane Austen does, say, which ought to be enough.
Roth’s wit is quick, casual, colloquial; he is master of the comic secrets of ordinary language. “Worse things had happened,” Tarnopol writes, “one of them, I believed, to me”; and the Gentile maiden of Tarnopol’s story is advised, “If you don’t succeed, Lydia—and you don’t—try, try again.” In the opening paragraph of The Breast, we are exhorted, “Reflect upon eternity, consider, if you are up to it, oblivion”; and we can go all the way back to Aunt Gladys, in Goodbye, Columbus, who wouldn’t serve pepper in her house because she had heard that it was not absorbed by the body, and “it was disturbing to Aunt Gladys to think that anything she served might pass through a gullet, stomach, and bowel just for the pleasure of the trip.”
Roth knows better than Aunt Gladys, but he doesn’t always act on his knowledge; and My Life as a Man, hooked like its hero on meaning and direction and substance, won’t really acknowledge the playful and profound pleasure of the trip. It doesn’t quite have the wisdom of its best jokes. Once again, though, Roth has beaten me to it, and suggests that this is precisely the book’s concern: the inaccessibility of the comic perspective. Tarnopol just can’t see things that way yet. That lets Tarnopol out, but it leaves Roth exactly where he was, because the book we have read, for all its virtues and wily strategies, still shows us, in my view, a very talented writer slightly at odds with his talent.
June 13, 1974