Performance Problems in Philip Roth’s Fiction

Philip Roth as rendered by David Levine.

In Philip Roth’s latest novel Exit Ghost, Nathan Zuckerman is recovering from prostrate cancer, which leaves him impotent. The effects of the disease were described with graphic, flinch-inducing vividness: Zuckerman’s manhood has been reduced to a “spigot of wrinkled flesh”. Roth likes to play with the line separating fact from fiction and Zuckerman’s life over the course of many novels has long mimicked, like an elongated shadow, Roth’s own biography. So some reviewers, notably Philip Marchand of the Toronto Star, worried that the author’s own health might have taken a Zuckerman-like downward turn.  

“I have not had, fortunately, prostate cancer and, subsequently, none of the side effects of cancer operations,” Roth reassured Marchand in a phone interview.  

Marchand needn’t have fretted. While Roth has occasionally suffered from physical and psychological ailments (recorded in his memoirs The Facts and Patrimony) he’s also long used bodily suffering a literary tool. No contemporary author has been so thoroughgoing in laying out his characters as embodied beings, with flesh that ages and goes awry. In The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Zuckerman fantasizes about giving up fiction writing and becoming a doctor. Roth has gone Zuckerman one better by being a novelist who can write with a doctor’s clinical precision about the body.  

A typical passage from Everyman (2006): “The year after the insertion of the renal stent, he had surgery for another major obstruction, this one in his left carotid artery, one of the two main arteries that stretch from the aorta to the base of the skull and supply blood to the brain and that if left obstructed could cause a disabling stroke or even sudden death.” There have been some great physician-writers, Chekhov and William Carlos Williams being among the best, but not even they have dealt with biology as such an oppressively all-encompassing constraint on our existence.  

In his popular reputation, Roth is hardly known as novelist of disease. Since the 1969 publication of Portnoy’s Complaint Roth is usually considered as American literature’s premier high-brow pornographer, an exuberant celebrator of masturbation, whoring, adultery, threesomes, orgies, and outré sexual experimentation. Roth himself noted that many people think of him as a “a crazed penis”. But Roth’s medical concerns can be seen even in the title of his most famous work: Portnoy’s complaint has many meanings, referring not just to his incessant whining but also his medical disorder.  

Has anyone noticed how often impotence shows up in Roth’s fiction? In Letting Go (1962), Paul Herz becomes impotent during the course of a wretched marriage. Portnoy is similarly diminished at the end of his long-winded complaint: not eyeless in Gaza but impotent in Israel. In The Counterlife (1986) Zuckerman’s brother is given heart medicine which destroys his sexual powers. And Zuckerman’s own impotence was first alluded to in The Human Stain (2000) before becoming a major component of the latest novel.  

The body in ecstasy, the body in pain: these two concerns are intimately intertwined. Ecstasy itself can be a type of pain; pain a reminder of lost ecstasy. Roth’s men have active penises but they also suffer, punitively and penitently as in a penal colony, penile restrictions and constrictions.   

3 thoughts on “Performance Problems in Philip Roth’s Fiction

  1. Don’t forget Updike. His life-long battle with psoriasis (like the late Dennis Potter) is just beneath the surface — symbolically speaking, of course — in a great deal of his fiction.

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