Getting Away With It

Joseph O’Neill considers Philip Roth‘s late novels in the Atlantic (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain; have been collected in a new volume from the Library of America):

Much of the action in these novels takes the form of the claims and counterclaims and rationalizations and cross-examinations and mea culpas and shame-on-yous pronounced by the disputants or bystanders. Consequently, the characters deliver long, brilliantly penetrating monologues that contradict the verbal and psychological realism with which their worlds are otherwise presented. How does Roth get away with it? You could say that the problem doesn’t even arise in the Zuckerman books—after all, if Nathan Zuckerman in his writing takes liberties with reported speech, that is a matter for him, not Philip Roth, to answer for. (Clever author, to eat his cake and have it too.) You could also defend the inconsistency pragmatically: the characters’ implausible oral powers of advocacy are a price you happily pay for the writing’s overall true-to-lifeness.

Aside from some mild chiding of Deception, O’Neill’s essay is pretty much hagiography, forgiving him for a multitude of alleged shortcomings—in this case the thin line between his autobiography and his fiction. (Fine by me. I believe Roth’s revival started not with Sabbath’s Theater but earlier, with Operation Shylock.)

One thought on “Getting Away With It

  1. Damning the narrator instead of the author is a very cheap way of avoiding criticism of the author. Those words are Roth’s, not Zuckerman’s.

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