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Playful and Serious: Philip Roth as a Comic Writer, edited by Ben Siegel and Jay L. Halio. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010.  276 pp.  $56.00.


The literature on one of the most important American writers has grown considerably over the last few years. Philip Roth’s canonical stature now seems assured, as the publication of the Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth in 2007 and the various volumes of his works in the prestigious Library of America collection show. The book under review concentrates on Roth’s comic side, but as the  title of the collection indicates, seriousness is by no means excluded. In fact, Roth is only occasionally a purely comic writer and frequently verges on the tragi-comic. And though Roth’s fictions draw heavily on the predicaments of American Jewish life, their focus extends to the tragedy and comedy of American life in general.

This volume of essays on Roth as a comic writer does not offer a coherent theoretical model of the comic in Roth—in fact some essays do not draw on any literary theory at all. This confirms the diagnosis of one of the contributors, David Brauner, who claims that few critics try to place Roth’s comedy in a “theoretical or historical context.” In his own paper, Brauner convincingly re-reads one of Roth’s indisputable masterpieces, Portnoy’s Complaint, as “not simply a prolonged dirty joke, but rather a comic rebuttal of psychoanalysis and a Freudian analysis of its own comic strategies” (p. 64). Brauner is thus nicely attuned to the intricate web of signifying practices in which parodies and counter-parodies intersect in the work of Roth, turning Portnoy’s Complaint as well as some of his other novels into highly accomplished exercises in comical self-reflexivity.

In contrast to other interpretations, David Gillota rightly emphasizes the role that the body plays in Roth’s comedy. A case in point is not only The Anatomy Lesson, not to mention The Breast, but also Sabbath’s Theater, perhaps Roth’s most outrageous novel, which is discussed in two contributions. This novel offers a paradigm of comedy without cheer, a black comedy that builds on the trinity of obscenity, giving offense, and affronting taboos. However, the overall character of much of Roth’s fiction seems to be that of farce in various shades, sometimes deadly, sometimes not so deadly and accordingly more subtle, as e.g. Jay Halio shows.

Comedy can also acquire darker shades when it is linked to political issues that by their very nature demand to be taken seriously. In his succinct and engaging piece on The Human Stain as a satiric tragedy of the politically incorrect, Sam Bluefarb rightly suggests parallels between the protagonist of the novel, Coleman Silk, and the Allan Bloom of The Closing of the American Mind, though regrettably he does not elaborate on this interesting point. Silk’s analysis of the state of American higher education does in fact uncannily resemble Bloom’s radical critique of the university inspired by the Straussian notion of liberal education in a mass democracy. Bluefarb, perhaps somewhat too quickly, takes this to be an expression of Roth’s own “contempt for the contemporary counterculture.” In addition, Bluefarb also casts a critical glance at some actual or apparent weaknesses in Roth’s way of writing, such as his predilection for his characters’ interior monologues of interminable length.

Most of the papers in this volume offer lucid and engaging arguments that considerably widen our understanding of comic elements in Roth’s many novels. Not all of the material is fresh, however—some chapters reprint earlier papers, which may also account for some formal incongruities, such as the inconsistent use of works-cited lists. Reprinting Elaine Safer’s chapter on Operation Shylock from her fairly recent (and still readily available) 2006 book Mocking the Age seems hardly necessary, at least for Roth scholars. The reprint of Ben Siegel’s 1976 article on The Great American Novel indicates a rather deplorable dearth of critical engagement with Roth’s perhaps least canonical novel ever since it was published. Therefore it is good to have Derek Parker Royal’s more recent paper dealing with Roth’s seemingly minor works that convincingly argues for taking them seriously as part of the Roth canon. He thus provides a welcome corrective since most contributors show a rather sceptical attitude towards Roth’s less well-received texts like Our Gang or The Great American Novel.

On quite another note, James Mellard, in his paper on comedy, castration, and the phallus in Exit Ghost, employs a somewhat arcane and, at least to this reviewer, somewhat dubious, Lacanian theory to offer an unconventional reading of the last of the Zuckerman novels. His piece focusing on issues of castration could be said to enact literary criticism as parody—Lacanian gobbledygook about castration as something positive leads to rather hilarious, if arbitrary, readings of a writer who would have been the first to savor the ironies inherent in this approach.- Mellard’s paper thus would seem to indicate that literary criticism can be funny in itself, albeit unintentionally so. In contrast, Roth’s versions of the comic are not necessarily funny; sometimes his fictions are not even laughing matter. For Roth is no mere jester—which is in a sense highlighted by the virtually complete absence of the almost unmitigatingly bleak Everyman and only a few occasional references to The Plot Against America in the present collection. One could perhaps say that all papers somehow converge on the idea that most of Roth’s writings offer a blend or some kind of rapprochment of stand-up comedy and sit-down comedy.

This stimulating book offers appraisals of Roth’s fictions up to and including Indignation, but in the meantime Roth has already outrun his critics by adding a further novel, Nemesis, to his impressive oeuvre.

Till Kinzel

Technische Universität Braunschweig