- Book Review Index
The Major Phases of Philip Roth, by David Gooblar. New York: Continuum, 2011. 208 pp. $29.95.
When a writer has had as long and fruitful a career as Philip Roth, running now to some thirty books published over more than fifty years, it may be as impossible as it is natural for readers to seek a cohesive narrative of the work. What makes Roth’s fiction Roth’s? In The Major Phases of Philip Roth, however, David Gooblar boldly asserts that he looks for no coherence where there is none, choosing instead to follow the author’s “self-conscious and deliberate zig-zag,” in Roth’s words, wherever it may lead. This admirable approach embraces Roth’s multiple interests and fictional modes—from realism to postmodernism, from “Jew” to “American” as identities, from fiction to fact, from comedy to high seriousness. Yet the very project of identifying “major phases” presupposes finding some measure of both coherence and change, and despite the author’s disclaimer, the resulting narrative in this book is most welcome. Gooblar’s intelligent reading of Roth’s work up to the turn of the century yields rich insight into the resonances and sources of the fiction, even while delineating distinctive patterns and preoccupations in Roth’s style and subject matter.
Most monographs published on Roth have attended to his forms and unique thematic material, and especially to his position as a Jewish American writer. In situating Roth’s oeuvre within recent American cultural history, Gooblar’s closest model may be Ross Posnock’s Philip Roth’s Rude Truth (2006), which broadened Roth studies by scrutinizing the writer’s literary and artistic forebears and contemporaries. Gooblar moves beyond Roth’s literary and philosophical analogues to take into account other influences on Roth’s imagination, such as the environment of Cold War liberalism and the pervasive presence of Freud in American letters at mid-century. Gooblar frames his discussion by arguing that Roth often moves at once both “inward” and “outward” in his contemplation of the self’s relation to the social world—toward the intimate self, and toward the teeming world. In maintaining this fresh thesis with a light touch, the book’s readings remain flexible.
The Major Phases of Philip Roth devotes a chapter to each “phase” of Roth’s career. Gooblar begins by considering the significant demographic shifts occurring for postwar American Jews against a background of both the flourishing, largely Jewish intellectual life dominating New York in the 1950s and the Jews’ growing consciousness of the Holocaust as inextricable from their own history. The first chapter explores the controversial responses to Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), showing that the fiction of Roth’s first phase not only overtly represents but also embodies the central predicament of how to be a Jewish artist in America—how, that is, to be independent, self-questioning, and committed to a modernist aesthetics of ambiguity and difficulty, like the liberal New York Intellectuals, and at the same time to be responsible to one’s community. The second chapter focuses on Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), whose comic social transgressions challenged the high-mindedness of the post-immigrant generation of Jewish intellectuals who felt compelled to perform “seriousness” as their ticket to cultural integrity, even as Roth’s tale testifies to the anxiety of carrying out such transgressions. The analysis is especially fresh in highlighting how Jewish intellectuals, represented by Portnoy, emphasized linguistic decorum as a strategy of cultural elevation. Gooblar uncovers a painful paradox: when Jewish intellectuals aligned themselves with highbrow culture as a means to redefine their identities harmoniously with America, they subscribed to just the values that constructed the Jew as alien in the first place.
The following chapters inquire into two other broad preoccupations visible in Roth’s fiction. First, in the third and fourth chapters, Gooblar considers how three iconic Jewish figures, Kafka, Anne Frank, and Freud, haunt the content and shape of Roth’s mid-career work. In economical treatments of My Life as a Man (1974), The Professor of Desire (1977), and the Zuckerman novels, Gooblar unfolds the ways in which, engaging these figures within his frame of reference, Roth continues to dramatize the problem of how to write as a Jew, even as he implicitly defends his own concerns as a writer. Especially fascinating in these chapters are the insights Gooblar gleans from the history of the theatrical production of The Diary of Anne Frank; and the case he makes for Roth’s fundamental reworking of the psychoanalytic paradigm. To argue the latter, the book traces Roth’s narratives of the self from his early absorption in Freudian determinism to analogies appearing in his mid-career fiction with the more fluid, open-ended, self-inventing insights of recent narrative therapy.
Thereafter, addressing in chapters five and six the autobiographical works of the late 1980s and 1990s and the “American trilogy” (American Pastoral , I Married a Communist , and The Human Stain ), Gooblar deflects the frequent accusation that Roth’s work is narcissistic. He thereby illuminates Roth’s stringent engagement with the ethical problems of writing about others and his poignant confrontation with the failed promise for Americans who, expecting to be able to reinvent themselves, instead faced the coercive and corrosive power of the community. Gooblar provides a comforting coda, however. Considering the haunting assertion in Everyman (2006) that “there’s no remaking reality,” he counters that remaking reality is precisely what fiction writers do—just the enterprise to which Roth has dedicated his career.
The Major Phases of Philip Roth offers incisive new readings and original approaches to Roth’s fiction in clear, economical prose, free of jargon. Along the way, Gooblar makes superb use of the Roth archives housed at the Library of Congress, citing enlightening material not yet introduced into the conversation about Roth. The archival material enables some little gems of analysis, such as in the discussions of My Life as a Man and Deception (1990). My only surprise is that Gooblar does not, except for a brief mention in the concluding pages, extend his fruitful approach to the most recent phase of Roth’s career—the work published since 2000. But this is a very minor point, considering the reach and insight of this book, which should join other recent monographs, such as those by Posnock, David Brauner, Pia Masiero, Aimee Pozorski, and Mark Shechner, as a critical standard in subsequent treatments of Roth’s work.
College of Wooster