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 in the next chapter to a routine landing at Heathrow.
This cavalier attitude toward verisimilitude keeps the reader on his toes; some have even reacted antagonistically to a game in which the writer deals himself all the good cards and then changes their value in mid-deal. Keeping the reader suspicious may keep him intelligent; it also renders the book’s specifically fictional effects extremely transparent. If the airplane hijacking, presented so concretely, was just a paranoid fantasy, how can one be sure that the anti-Semitic incident with which the book concludes did not also take place in the narrator’s fervent imagination? For that matter, how can one be sure that it was not Nathan Zuckerman himself (rather than his brother Henry the dentist) who died in the first chapter of The Counterlife and was resurrected in the second? To be sure, Nathan dies again later in the same book, and Henry, rummaging among his effects, finds the manuscript of the novel in which all this is being read. Both brothers die in the same way, in consequence of a heart operation gone awry, both are enamored of someone else’s gentile wife named Maria, both are obsessed with the falsities of fiction. So speculation is free to play with these component pieces, which can be assembled to make as many different structures as an Erector Set, a very big and complex one.
For a variety of reasons, so diverse that a reader is given free choice among them, Roth followed up on the glittering illusionism of The Counterlife with a set of three books, each apparently intent from a different angle on reducing his experience to an original prefictionalized reality. Their titles and subtitles emphasize this theme unmistakably. The Facts (1988) is subtitled A Novelist’s Autobiography; Deception (1990), though it does without a subtitle, contains in its terse name more than enough undertones for the most avid of ironists; and Patrimony (1991) defines itself in the classic Honest-John formula as “A True Story.”
The first two of these books have been reviewed, and very ably reviewed, in this publication (by Thomas Edwards, October 13, 1988, and by Gabriele Annan, May 31, 1990); but seen as units in a group of three, they take on a variety of new facets. For example, the “novelist’s autobiography,” The Facts, is sandwiched between two patent bits of fantasy, an exchange of letters between Philip Roth and his own fictional creation Nathan Zuckerman. But the actual “autobiography” in the middle, though laced with many details, reflective explanations, and analytic insights, is no less a work of self-protective fantasy—as Zuckerman in his concluding letter sharply indicates. Deception, on the other hand, claims authenticity by dispensing with almost all the machinery of the novel, including description, narration, character analysis, omniscient authorial presence, and for that matter a “story.” It is a set of conversational fragments—desultory, sardonic, embedded in social situations that have to be deciphered from passing implications.
Some of the speakers are identifiable from previous books by Roth; some are very likely decoys, intended to resemble familiar figures but “really” quite different. Still others make what in another medium would be called “cameo” appearances. The character who is sporadically though indirectly identified as Roth protests on occasion that he is chiefly interested in the way people speak, and indeed one can believe that he is more concerned with dialects and inflections than with any of the characters, perhaps including himself. The conversations are beautifully conceived—erratic, intimate, lazy, incisive—and a reader may appreciate them for their own qualities without taking all the detours necessary to run down their allusions, circumstances, and implications.
Once more the book culminates with an outburst which “Philip” interprets, contrary to the judgment of his friends, as provoked by anti-Semitism. Once more the reader may assemble or disintegrate the units of the book as his ingenuity prompts, but without much assurance that this arrangement is better than that. There are angles from which Deception seems to defictionalize some presumed experiences of Philip Roth, but mainly by removing the structural supports and illusionistic devices that give us, in reading narratives, the impression of being sustained by a continuum akin to reality. To succeed in reading Deception consecutively is thus to conspire at one’s own deception.
Patrimony, the third of these defictionalized books, looks much more like a true story, as its subtitle claims; it is in fact a story tout court. The book is a grisly and cruelly realistic account of the last months in the life of Herman Roth, Philip’s father, who died slowly and painfully of a brain cancer at the age of eighty-six. Herman Roth had served as manager of several branch offices of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in New Jersey. He was, by the testimony of his son, an admirable employee—hard-driving, scrupulous, and determinedly loyal to a company within which he remained an exceptional Jew. (Philip says explicitly that organizational policy was anti-Semitic, the company uneasily denies it; what sort of compromise Herman Roth achieved in his own mind we are left to guess, but he tells his son to stop making a public issue of it.) He was also a well-meaning, opinionated father.
The story of Herman Roth’s life is an epic of the ordinary and of the compromises that accumulate to make an ordinary existence. A reader will be most impressed by images of the manager and his staff going out nights among their mainly black clients to collect premiums (a few cents a week, mostly) in the sincere conviction that these painfully extracted dribs of money would save their reluctant clients from their own “shiftlessness.” But the stubborn diligence that kept Herman Roth at this disagreeable drudgery, and made him successful at it, was not too different from the spirit that led his son to tell in scrupulous and painful detail the story of his father’s final months of suffering.
The tumor that killed Herman Roth was called by the diagnosticians “benign”—that is, it killed its victim inexorably but slowly, in other words, agonizingly. In this respect it was very much like the surgeons whom the family in their distress consulted. They were kindly and considerate men who proposed to remove the tumor by operations, one more complex, painful, and hazardous than the other. Their final proposal was to perform two fourteen-hour operations on the brain of an eighty-six-year-old man already crippled by a bad stroke. Fortunately, the family had enough sense to decline this hideous alternative. They settled on an operation to remove a cataract from the old man’s eye, doing nothing whatever about the tumor that was killing him, and giving him a few last months of renewed eyesight and relief, if not happiness.
He clung to life with the same tenacity that he put into living it; he was bossy and opinionated to the end. He defended his son’s books against assorted attacks, probably without having read them; until his disfiguring stroke he nourished fantasies about the rich Jewish dowagers he encountered during his winter visits to Florida. His wife having died years before, he found a humble woman with whom he could live, and of whom he could (inevitably) complain. He compromised on many of the observances, but clung to a few vestiges of his Jewish traditions. He was a proud, affectionate, and (reading between the lines) all but impossible father.
The “patrimony” of the title appears when the old man, after a lifetime of gripes and constipation, abruptly loses control of his sphincter and monumentally beshits himself, his clothes, and the bathroom of the house in which he is staying. This is Roth’s patrimony in the sense that it provides him with the opportunity, both humanly and literally, to face things at their worst. Readers may react very differently to the scene; I found it emotionally affecting to the point of pain. But from another point of view, it was disturbing to have the old man’s ultimate humiliation used as material for a mere book, even for a theory about how this book should be written—especially since Roth promises him he won’t tell anyone about it. Roth records a later dream in which his father appeared, saying plaintively that he had been dressed in the wrong suit—not just for the funeral but, as Roth interprets it, for the book. One is not surprised; inline with what he calls the “unseemliness” of his profession, Roth had been keeping notes, throughout his father’s last illness, in preparation for the present book. It seems like a cold-blooded procedure, although it may have also provided Roth with some relief.
Without pretending to render a proper aesthetic judgment on the book or on the common standards of Roth’s profession, I must say that only a man of Roth’s challenging disposition would have attempted such a discordant bundle of effects, and only a man with Roth’s trenchant style could have carried it off. The abrasive disposition that Herman Roth bequeathed to his son is writ large here, reflected in a tribute that the old man would surely have hated. The presentation is frightful enough to test the nerves and grate the feelings of a reader of fiction, however resolute. Yet there’s a lot of warm and gritty reality in the book, even streaks of humor, like fitful lightning in a black night.
Patrimony, as the latest book in a complex writer’s complex development, leaves one with the curious sense of having returned to some basic narrative roots without having completed a definable cycle. Perhaps the notebook realism of this “true story” is a momentary stage on an outward spiral too large to be defined as yet. While the full pattern is still in the making, it retains all the multiple fascinations of the indefinite. In the ongoing adventure of Philip Roth’s pursuit of Philip Roth, there will be plenty of turns, twists, and reversals—which, in the limited personal cosmos he has made his own, can only be an exhilarating prospect.
May 16, 1991