Roth’s Exit Ghost: Reviewing the Reviewers

Those who care about criticism, admittedly a rarefied concern, find it useful sometimes to review the reviewers. For movies, it’s an easy enough game: just watch a flick and then go to Rotten Tomatoes and find out what the peanut gallery is up to. If you do this a few times, you’ll discover that there’s a fairly consistent pattern whereby certain critics (like J. Hoberman of the Village Voice) are almost unfailingly thoughtful while the general ruck of newspaper mediocrities rely on a fairly narrow set of ideas and expectations. A quick Rotten Tomatoes tour is an easy way to get a snapshot of the cultural consensus at any given moment.

Reviewing the reviewers is a bit harder to do with literature because many of the most interesting writers get little critical attention. K.D. Miller, for example, is one of the best short story writers around but you’d have to some diligent library excavation to find even brief and causal notices of her work.

And some writers are so demanding that it hardly seems worthwhile to attend to what newspaper and magazine reviewers say about their work. At a guess, I’d say it takes about six months to figure out what the hell Thomas Pynchon is up to with a new book, to even separate the head of his novel from its tail. (The early newspaper reviews of Ulysses now stand as curiosities, like a Victorian explorer’s uncomprehending and blinkered account of a newfound African tribe). Most newspaper reviewers have about a week to tackle these tomes, magazine critics maybe a month. The really important books require much more time to become palatable; like an exotic cuisine, you have to work to acquire a taste for them.

Still, there exist a happy cluster of writers who write worthwhile books that lend themselves to a quick appraisal and have a large enough audience so that they get widely reviewed: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Orhan Pamuk.

Philip Roth belongs to this elite club and his most recent novel, Exit Ghost, present a good opportunity to review the reviewers. Roth is real challenge for reviewers to grab hold of, very readable but tricky, slipperier than he looks. His glittering reputation can be blinding. He’s entombed as a living classic in the Library of America series, the only still-breathing author who now enjoys that honour, and he’s won every award he could want short of the Nobel Prize (which many fans argue is long overdue).

Yet he’s often appreciated for the wrong reasons. It’s telling that Roth’s best books (My Life as a Man, the first Zuckerman trilogy, and most of all Sabbath’s Theater) were widely panned by reviewers who dismissed their ferocious inwardness as a form of narcissism. Conversely, some of Roth’s weaker books (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist) won rave write-ups because they dealt with “issues” and “historically significant” events (as if fiction were simply a form of reportage). No wonder Roth is so often scornful of book reviewers.

Roth’s recent novels – I’m thinking here of The Dying Animal, Everyman and Exit Ghost – have only been middling successful, not terrible by any means (unlike earlier Roth’s fiascos like Our Gang) but certainly much diminished from his peak work. That quality of mixed achievement is hard to pinpoint, since most of us are more comfortable with the easy clarity of praise and blame.

Sometimes we run across charismatic individuals who have a commanding presence in conversation. Their words are carried along with a dramatic intensity, their stories flow with a mesmerizing ease. Roth has this quality in almost all his novels. As he once told an interviewer, “What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book – if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t.” Once you pick up a Roth book, it takes hold of you and returning to the world outside the printed page is difficult. In this one area, Roth is superior to John Updike, otherwise much more talented in every conceivable way. Updike is simply too suave to grab hold of the reader, which is a weakness; fiction remains a branch of storytelling and writers need to be attention-getters.

Roth lived for many years with a talented actress (Clare Bloom) and he himself has a thespian’s appetite for extended scenery-chewing speechifying, where characters give themselves over to tirades, spiels, and denunciations. In sum, Philip love philippics. But in recent books these monologues have grown monotonously mono-tonal. The symphony of voices in Roth’s earlier books has dwindled into lonely repetitive ranting. The author’s prose has suffered as a consequence. Mindful of Roth’s favored theme of impotence, we can say that his prose, once taut and potent, has slackened into a shriveled and leaky thing.

How have the reviewers dealt with Roth’s work? Let’s do the rundown from top to bottom.

At the head of the class is James Woods in the New Yorker.

Woods is immensely well-regarded as a critic and for very good reasons. He is the only critic to give any sustained account of Roth’s prose, which should be the central concern of criticism. Woods makes an interesting argument on behalf of Roth’s late prose, a case that challenges my own preferences and makes me want to reread and reconsider the most recent novels. This analysis is worth quoting:

The fantasy of endlessness has found its form in late Roth — in a spare, pragmatic prose, apparently unconcerned with literary effects, focussed only on its subject. It is striking, by contrast, how proper and “literary” the earlier work now seems, with its tidy sentences and plush images sewn into the right places, its formal approach to verisimilitude. At the end of The Anatomy Lesson (1984), for example, Nathan Zuckerman is in the hospital with a fractured jaw. He sees a patient with cancer of the mouth, and anatomizes the visage with Flaubertian precision and coolness: “There was a hole in her cheek the size of a quarter. Through it Zuckerman could see her tongue as it nervously skittered about inside her mouth. The jawbone itself was partially exposed, an inch of it as white and clean as enamel tile.” Roth does not write like this anymore. He is simpler, more urgent, more vocal. In fact, in this later, plainer work Roth often makes subtle poetry by using ordinary words in unexpected ways, or by mobilizing cliché, but he slips these phrases past us conversationally, almost before we have noticed them. An old retiree in Florida, in Sabbath’s Theater, for instance, is referred to by the unassuming phrase “a suntanned little endurer with steel-gray hair,” and we can see this Floridian in all his wrinkled longevity. Similarly, in Exit Ghost Zuckerman reflects that he cannot defeat a much younger man, a literary journalist named Richard Kliman, who is “savage with health and armed to the teeth with time.” It is wonderful to take the cliché “armed to the teeth” and combine it with the abstract word “time,” producing a hovering suggestion of a second cliché, this one having to do with old age, being “long in the tooth.” In this novel, and in this phrase, short in the tooth meets long in the tooth.

This is excellent criticism, attentive and sharp-eyed.

The middle range of criticism can be seen in Wyatt Mason’s review for Harper’s and Sarah Kerr’s review in the New York Review of Books. Both are hardworking writers who have gone back and re-read the earlier Zuckerman books to situate the new novel as part of an oeuvre.  Kerr is especially good on the way in which the latest incarnation of Zuckerman contradicts the portrayal in The Human Stain. This is a point worth pushing: Roth’s characters, and especially Zuckerman, are often puppets, part of a repertoire company that the novelist takes out and uses for the story at hand without any necessary connection from book to book (a completely different version of Zuckerman exists in My Life as a Man; one Zuckerman-variant died in The Counterlife). This is a different approach to character-creation than that of, say, John Updike in the Rabbit books, which seek to develop a life story with an organic biographical fidelity.  

Although less attentive to language than Woods, Mason and Kerr are mindful of Roth’s tone. Their greatest fault is that they go in too heavily for plot summary. Both reviews feel muted, as if the writers are holding back objections in deference to their respect for Roth.

To see what Roth looks like to  remedial readers, take a glance at Christopher Hitchens’s review in The Atlantic and Carlin Romano’s in The Philadelphia Inquirer. These reviews are disgraceful. Hitchens and Romano both go in for personal attacks on Roth (Romano relying heavily on the bitter memoirs of an ex-wife); both conflate autobiography with fiction, Zuckerman with Roth; both regurgitated the most trite clichés about Roth’s work (he’s a self-obsessed misogynist and onanistic sex maniac! That was cutting edge criticism in 1971!). According to Hitchens, Roth is “now using his fiction … to give himself something to masturbate about.”Romano is just a twit who likes to be rude in print to win unearned attention (as a journalistic ice-breaker he once developed a thought experiment about raping a feminist scholar). Hitchens is a sadder story: his decline as a political writer has been amply documented but few have observed that his skills as a literary critic have taken an equal downward turn. Unless it’s a trick of memory, I remember that he had a real flair for writing about popular fiction in an incisive way. I have a fond recall for his reviews of P.G. Wodehouse and Tom Clancy. Now he’s among the worst reviewers around.

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