Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of The New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas. Relax, I wanted to say. I don’t make a habit of correcting people in conversation or in print — unless it’s for publication and they ask for it, or I’m getting paid. We copy editors sometimes get a reputation for wanting to redirect the flow, change the course of the missile, have our way with a piece of prose. The image of the copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers. I suppose I have been all of these.
But good writers have a reason for doing things the way they do them, and if you tinker with their work, taking it upon yourself to neutralize a slightly eccentric usage or zap a comma or sharpen the emphasis of something that the writer was deliberately keeping obscure, you are not helping. In my experience, the really great writers enjoy the editorial process. They weigh queries, and they accept or reject them for good reasons. They are not defensive. The whole point of having things read before publication is to test their effect on a general reader. You want to make sure when you go out there that the tag on the back of your collar isn’t poking up — unless, of course, you are deliberately wearing your clothes inside out.
When the opening chapters of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist ran in The New Yorker, I got to OK it. It was immaculate, partly because we were working from the galleys of the book: copy editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux had already been over it, and, once a piece is in that form, authors, agents, and editors are reluctant to change a ligature. I went over it, giving it all I had: sometimes copy departments at publishing houses miss something, just as we sometimes miss something. As it happens, I noticed a small inconsistency in a passage that was quoted from a children’s history book. It was a long quotation, set off in small type, and it was repeated at the end, with some slight variation. I marked it and gave my proof to the fiction editor, Bill Buford. Later, Bill’s assistant came bounding up the stairs and delivered to me a color Xerox of the first page of my proof, on which Buford had written in blue, “Of Mary Norris, Roth said: ‘Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?’”
Up to that point, I’d read only Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. Helen Stark, who was in charge of The New Yorker’s editorial library, had been all atwitter when The Ghost Writer ran in the magazine — she saved it for herself to index. Now I bought the audiobook of I Married a Communist and listened to it on a drive back from Ohio. It was read by the actor Ron Silver, and I almost went off the road during an ecstatic passage where the stars were furnaces: furnace of Ira, furnace of Eve. It seemed so warm and passionate. The book was funny, too: the hero is forced to schlep his girlfriend’s daughter’s harp all over town, and I had a harpist in the family, so I knew what a pain the harp was — there is nothing heavenly about a working harp. I subsequently had a year of Roth: Patrimony, The Facts (“Reader, I married her”), all the Zuckerman books. When Exit Ghost came out, I went back and read The Ghost Writer. I was on a trip to Amsterdam and saw Anne Frank’s house and reread her diary while staying in a hotel on the spot of one that burned down during the war. I was so sorry when I ran out of Roth to read.
I did speak with Roth on the phone once, closing a piece about Saul Bellow, and saw him at a New Yorker Christmas party. I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.
Excerpted from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. Copyright © 2015 by Mary Norris. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
In a year where it seemed like much of the conversation was about very long books — I’m thinking particularly about the series of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels — my favourite book was a very short one. In fact, the book has something in common with the Knausgaard books, in that it too is a sort of memoir cum novel. The book is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I was in San Francisco on my desultory book tour when it was recommended to me by a friend. Knocking around the city with little to do, I went into City Lights Books and asked for it. They had a single copy, still in print as a Vintage paperback, 135 pages. I knew very little about Maxwell before this and hadn’t read anything else by him, but, after I’d read the book and was still in its thrall, I discovered that friends whose literary taste I respect knew it well, and remembered certain passages from the book with remarkable fidelity. It is that kind of book. Published when Maxwell was in his 70s, it bears on every page the mark of experience, wisdom, and a gentle humility — the consequence of the many mysteries and regrets that comprise a man’s life. At the heart of the book is a murder, a crime of passion committed in a rural Illinois community in the 1920s. Maxwell, a boy at the time, had only a glancing connection to the event, in that he was acquainted with the murderer’s son. But the event haunts him, largely because of a seemingly trivial act of cruelty — barely perceptible — that he visited upon this other boy. Tormented by the memory, Maxwell reimagines the events in the minutest detail, recalling not only his own boyhood self but inhabiting every character related to the murder — including, famously, a dog. That he is able to realize this in only 135 pages, sacrificing no depth for brevity, is a extraordinary achievement. I recommend the novel for this, and also for its prose — in a class with George Orwell’s — each sentence honed for honesty and clarity. It is an exemplary book, well-deserving of its high reputation. I’m sure I’ll return to it again, as I do to a number of other short novels that have staked their claim on me: Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer.
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Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Did Dickens invent Christmas? It’s sometimes said he did, recreating the holiday as we know it out of the neglect that had been imposed on it by Puritanism, Utilitarianism, and the Scrooge-like forces of the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens himself would hardly have said he invented the traditions he celebrated: the mission of his Ghost of Christmas Present, after all, is to show the spirit and customs of the holiday are authentic and alive among the people, not just humbug. But A Christmas Carol did appear alongside the arrival in Victorian England of some of the modern traditions of the holiday. It was published in 1843, the same year the first commercial Christmas cards were printed in England, and two years after Prince Albert brought the German custom of the Christmas tree with him to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria.
Christmas was undoubtedly Dickens’s favorite holiday, and he made it a tradition of his own. A Christmas Carol was the first of his five almost-annual Christmas books (he regretted skipping a year in 1847 while working on Dombey and Son; he was “very loath to lose the money,” he said. “And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill”), and then for eighteen more years he published Christmas editions of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. And the popular and exhausting activity that nearly took over the last decades of his career, his public reading of his own works, began with his Christmas stories. For years they remained his favorite texts to perform, whether it was December or not.
One of the Christmas traditions Dickens most wanted to celebrate is one mostly forgotten now: storytelling. The early Christmas numbers of Household Words were imagined as stories told around the fireplace, often ghost stories like A Christmas Carol. It’s an easily forgotten detail that the classic American ghost tale, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is also told around the Christmas hearth. James begins his tale with the mention of a story told among friends “round the fire,” about which we learn little except that it was “gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be,” and that it involved a child. Three nights later that story inspires another, even stranger and more unsettling and involving not one child but two, a ratcheting of dread that gave James the title for his tale.
Telling ghost stories around the hearth might have declined since Dickens’s and James’s times, but it’s striking how important the voice of the storyteller remains in more recent Christmas traditions: Dylan Thomas, nostalgic for the winters of his childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; Jean Shepherd, nostalgic for the Red Ryder air rifles of his own childhood in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, later adapted, with Shepherd’s own narration, into the cable TV staple A Christmas Story; and David Sedaris, nostalgic for absolutely nothing from his years as an underpaid elf in the “SantaLand Diaries,” the NPR monologue that launched his storytelling career.
Gather round the fire with these December tales:
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845)
In a Christmas tale of sparkling simplicity, a small brother and sister, heading home from grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve across a mountain pass, find their familiar path made strange and spend a wakeful night in an ice cave on a glacier as the Northern Lights–which the girl takes as a visit from the Holy Child–flood the dark skies above them.
The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday (1861)
Dickens was not the only Victorian with a taste for public speaking: Faraday created the still-ongoing series of Christmastime scientific lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, the best known of which remains his own, a classic of scientific explanation for readers of any age.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
If you were one of the March girls, you’d read the copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress you found under your pillow on Christmas morning, but we’ll excuse you if you prefer to read about the Marches themselves instead.
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934)
Julian English’s three-day spiral to a lonely end, burning every bridge he can in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, from the day before Christmas to the day after, is inexplicable, inevitable, and compelling, the inexplicability of his self-destruction only adding to his isolation.
“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier (1952)
Hitchcock transplanted the unsettling idea of mass avian malevolence in du Maurier’s story from the blustery December coast of England to the Technicolor brightness of California, but the original, told with the terse modesty of postwar austerity, still carries a greater horror.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
Holden’s not supposed to be back from Pencey Prep for Christmas vacation until Wednesday, but since he’s been kicked out anyway, he figures he might as well head to the city early and take it easy in some inexpensive hotel before going home all rested up and feeling swell.
Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1963)
The “twenty years of unhappiness” recounted in Athill’s memoir, after her fiancé wrote to say he was marrying someone else just before being killed in the war, ended on her forty-first birthday with the news she had won the Observer’s Christmas story competition (the same prize that launched Muriel Spark’s career seven years before).
Tape for the Turn of the Year by A. R. Ammons (1965)
The long poem was a form made for Ammons, with its space to wander around, contradict himself, and turn equally to matters quotidian and cosmic, as he does in this lovely experiment that, in a sort of serious joke on Kerouac, he composed on a single piece of adding machine tape from December 1963 to early January 1964.
Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie (1976)
Want to extend The Catcher in the Rye’s feeling of unrequited holiday ennui well into your twenties? Spend the days before New Year’s with Charles, impatient, blunt, and love-struck over a married woman whom he kept giving Salinger books until she couldn’t bear it anymore.
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979)
The brash and eventful fictional life of Nathan Zuckerman, which Roth extended in another eight books, starts quietly in this short novel (one of Roth’s best), with his abashed arrival on a December afternoon at the country retreat of his idol, the reclusive novelist E. I. Lonoff.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998)
Head south with the snowbirds to the humid swamps of Florida as Orlean investigates the December theft of over two hundred orchids from state swampland and becomes fascinated by its strangely charismatic primary perpetrator, John Laroche.
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1999)
Or perhaps your December isn’t cold enough. Beevor’s authoritative account of the siege of Stalingrad, the wintry graveyard of Hitler’s plans to conquer Russia, captures the nearly incomprehensible human drama that changed the course of the war at a cost of a million lives.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
Didion’s year of grief, recorded in this clear-eyed memoir, began with her husband’s sudden death on December 30, 2003, and ended on the last day of 2004, the first day, as she realized to her sorrow, that he hadn’t seen the year before.
Last Day at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (2007)
Manny DeLeon will be all right—he has a transfer to a nearby Olive Garden set up—but in his last shift as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster, shutting down for good with a blizzard on the way, he becomes a sort of saint of the corporate service economy in O’Nan’s modest marvel of a novel.
December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (2012)
Two German artists reinvent the calendar book, with Richter’s photographs of snowy, implacable winter and Kluge’s enigmatic anecdotes from Decembers past, drawing from 21,999 b.c. to 2009 a.d. but circling back obsessively to the two empires, Nazi and Soviet, that met at Stalingrad.
“There’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction. There is another way entirely, amazed as I am to discover it at this late date,” Philip Roth said in an interview with Cynthia Haven for Stanford’s The Book Haven. Besides his retirement from writing, Roth also discussed why he doesn’t consider himself an American-Jewish writer and his book The Ghost Writer. For more Roth, read our essay on lessons you can learn from his work.
Like many people, I was saddened when it was publicized that Philip Roth had quietly announced his retirement in an interview with a French magazine. By chance, the news came near the end of a year during which my attitude toward Roth changed from appreciation to obsession. Before 2012, I had read perhaps 10 of Roth’s books in a decade. This year, I read 15 Roth novels in a row, the literary equivalent of binge-watching multiple seasons of a serial television drama. The more I read, the more I appreciated how Roth writes not only with technical virtuosity and aesthetic mastery, but also with profound spiritual intent. In this way, he reminds me of the 85-year-old Japanese master chef portrayed in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At the top of their fields and now in their twilight years, both come across as men who vacillate between narcissism and humility, perfectionists for whom life is work and work is life. As a tribute, I offer the following 10 key ideas I gleaned from Roth’s work and career. I hope these inspire fans to revisit his books, detractors to give him another try, and newcomers to read him for the first time.
1. Work hard. With 31 books in 51 years – from Goodbye Columbus (1959) to Nemesis (2010), Roth cranked out copy like Danielle Steele, James Patterson, or Stephen King, not like a precious literary genius. He could have rested on his laurels in any of the last six decades, gone off the grid like Salinger, or found a nice sinecure at a writers’ workshop. But he just kept on writing. Roth was probably at the height of his powers in the late 90s and early 2000s, the years of the masterful trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) and The Plot Against America. But his recent books are equally elegant, the kind of short novels that demand to be read in one sitting. If you think you work too hard, think about Roth and think again. If you’re satisfied with your accomplishments, think again. Roth’s won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice each), the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times), and is the only writer to have his canon published by the Library of America while still alive. The protagonist of Everyman quotes the painter Chuck Close as saying “amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Indeed.
2. People are animals. Roth’s male characters cannot keep it in their pants. Their lives are filled with sex, mostly adulterous sex, mostly sex with younger women. His titles alone suggest carnality (The Professor of Desire), physicality (The Anatomy Lesson), beastliness (The Dying Animal), ejaculation (The Human Stain) and straight-up sex (The Prague Orgy). In his silliest novel, The Breast, a philandering professor David Kepesh wakes up to discover that he has become a giant mammary. For all the misery their lust causes them and their wives and lovers, these guys rarely seem to learn from – or apologize for — their peccadilloes. While these tales both celebrate and caution against lechery, they are not pornography. Roth’s books lack the soft-core aspect of Haruki Murakami or John Updike or Anne Rice sex scenes. Although many of his characters objectify and mistreat women, it’s reductive to call Roth a misogynist. If anything his characters love women too much, albeit in an oft-misguided way. As Roth writes in Deception, “With the lover, everyday life recedes.” Such characters’ urges seem motivated not by hedonism, but by the desire to slake needs, to find companionship, to stave off mortality. Following the classic writing teacher advice to take away your hero’s central desire – Roth makes his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman impotent, which only makes him hungrier for sex and more appreciative of its power. In a country where sex is still taboo, Roth’s embrace of such a core biological and psychological compulsion is not merely titillating or salacious, but refreshing.
3. We are alone and want to be known. Despite their busy bedrooms, Roth’s characters are often hermits, recluses, and lone wolves. His three major recurring alter egos – Zuckerman, Kepesh, and “Philip Roth” — are all lonely, as are many of his secondary characters, whether they are young, middle-aged, or old. Yet for all their solitude and secret lives and double lives, they still strive for the love of friends or mentors or heroes or parents or siblings or lovers. Throughout his work, Roth suggests that the deepest human longing is the desire to be known, not merely biblically, but intellectually, emotionally, and existentially. Yet we are all fundamentally mysteries to each other. As Zuckerman says in The Human Stain: “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” Another character in the same novel speaks to the dilemma at the heart of Roth’s characters and perhaps of all humanity: “afraid of being exposed, dying to be seen.”
4. The flesh is weak. This is true for Roth’s characters not only in their lasciviousness, but also in their fascination with their own physical frailty and mortality. Like an episode of Law and Order or The Wire or Midsomer Murders, nearly every Roth novel features at least one death. His work is also filled with illnesses – cancer, strokes, chronic pain — and a multitude of scenes at hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries. All this death – and the possibility of death — raises the dramatic stakes and adds to the existential malaise and weightiness. In The Human Stain, Zuckerman describes a crowd at a concert as “an entity of sensate flesh and warm red blood, separated from oblivion by the thinnest, most fragile layer of life.” And it’s not only old people who confront death. In Nemesis, a polio epidemic strikes kids. In The Plot Against America, the narrator’s adolescent cousin loses a leg in World War II. “The Life and Death of the Male Body” — a phrase from Everyman — seems to sum up Roth’s oeuvre. But it’s not all gloom. For all their physical frailty, Roth’s characters want to live, to love, and often, to write until their last breath.
5. Beware of ideology. In Roth’s world, personal tragedy and political tragedy go hand in hand and ideologies like communism, fascism, terrorism – and their antitheses — have deadly consequences. I Married A Communist is the biography of a radio host who falls victim to McCarthyism. The Plot Against America imagines an alternate reality where America flirts with fascism and Nazi Germany under President Charles Lindbergh. Pulitzer Prize-winner American Pastoral is the story of a homegrown female terrorist. In The Human Stain, an aging professor battles with political correctness and professional persecution at the university as well as neo-Puritanism in the era of Clinton and Lewinsky. In The Prague Orgy, Zuckerman goes to Eastern Europe, where the secret police track his every move. And in many of his novels, Roth speaks of the horrors of a century of American militarism, from World War I and II to Vietnam and Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq. And according to a character in The Human Stain, human history consists of two types: “the ruthless and the defenseless.” Overall, the message seems to be that any mass political movement – on the left or on the right, radical or reactionary, secular or religious – poses grave danger to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A eulogy in The Human Stain celebrates “the American individualist,” suggesting that people are better off when they think for themselves.
6. Prejudice is alive and well. Along with his distrust of ideology, Roth’s fiction critiques the pervasive Anti-Semitism and racism in America. Roth’s protagonists are mostly secular or atheist or agnostic Jews, but they still identify as Jewish, and perhaps more important, others label them as Jews. Roth was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, a historical fact that lingers in his books. Sometimes it’s a major plot point, as in The Plot Against America, which includes forced resettlement of Jews, or in The Ghostwriter when Zuckerman meets a woman he believes is Anne Frank, or I Married A Communist, which links anti-Semitism and McCarthyism. Not that Roth spares Jews from his critical eye. The Zionist rabbi in The Counterlife and the rabbi in The Plot Against America who colludes with the Lindbergh regime are two of his most villainous and least sympathetic characters. And his narrators often vent their frustration with the strictures of Judaism. Zuckerman is often called a traitor for his fictional depictions of Jews. In Portnoy’s Complaint, the narrator’s mother thinks he’s eating non-Kosher food in the bathroom, when in fact he’s masturbating. And there’s one aching moment in The Plot Against America where a young boy sees his mother on the bus through the world’s eyes: “It was then that I realized…that my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes – my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn’t known.” In one of his finest books, The Human Stain, Roth adds the issue of racism through Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who “passes” as white and pretends to be Jewish to his family, friends, and colleagues. While overt anti-Semitism and racism may be less common in 2012 than it was in Roth’s youth – and an African-American is our president – Roth implies that we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on our tolerance. Given America’s history of racism and religious persecution and more recent treatment of Muslims since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constitutional claim that “all men are created equal” is more of a hope than a reality.
7. New Jersey is beautiful. There’s no deeper prejudice than the native New Yorker’s snobbery about New Jersey, a prejudice I share despite a dad from Hoboken, a girlfriend from East Brunswick, and a lot of time spent in the Garden State over the last two years. But let’s be honest. New Jersey deserves a lot of its bad rap: the traffic and toxic smells on the turnpike, the Guidos and Guidettes down the shore, the violence and poverty in Newark and Camden. Even the musical celebrities – Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi — are mercilessly cheesy. Yet in Roth’s eyes, New Jersey is beautiful, if not aesthetically, then emotionally. And as Roth points out in The Human Stain, New Jersey was originally called New Caesarea, a name surely suggestive of an empire. Not that Roth romanticizes Jersey: the squalor and decay of his once idyllic native Newark is recurrent, but he portrays it as a real place with complexities and contradictions, virtues and flaws. While his Jersey-born characters often escape to the culture of New York or the tranquility of the Berkshires, and Roth himself has lived in Connecticut and New York sine 1972, you can’t take the Jersey out of the kid or the books. When he dies, I hope the state finds an appropriate way to honor him. No disrespect to Woodrow Wilson, Vince Lombardi, and Thomas Edison, but I hope it’s not the Philip M. Roth Rest Stop. Then again, it might be fitting. Like that quintessential Jersey car – the Ford Mustang — that first came out in 1964, back when Roth had only two books to his name — Roth is an American classic whose styles change, but is always recognizable as itself.
8. There’s a fine line between reality, fiction, and fantasy. Many writers blur the boundary between fiction and their own lives. Roth takes this to an extreme. His characters are writers, professors, and artists who might as well be writers, and even a recurring “character” named Philip Roth. (Fortunately, Roth has the good sense to focus more on their personal lives than their literary lives). His favorite settings include his native Newark, Chicago (where he went to graduate school), and the fictional Athena College, which reads like a small town New England fusion of the schools where Roth studied and taught (Bucknell, Chicago, and Princeton). Even his more outlandish premises (The Breast, The Plot Against America) are grounded in reality. While Roth may have some literary gas left in his tank, he’s clearly concerned with events of this world. There’s no danger of him writing Nathan Zuckerman: Vampire Hunter.
9. The Power of Three. Roth’s stories are filled with grace and grandeur, fast-paced plots, and high stakes drama. He writes both linear and non-linear narratives, often with seamlessly overlapping layers of memory and reflection. While he favors first person narration, he also experiments: deception is written entirely in dialogue, essentially a play without stage directions. And beyond his subject, there is the majesty of his prose, lush but never dense, intellectual but never pretentious. His sentences can be one word or contain 23 verbs, like a sentence in The Plot Against America. One paragraph in I Married A Communist uses the word betrayed or “betrayal” 23 times. And like a character in The Human Stain, his best friend seems to be the dictionary. Full analysis of Roth’s prose would take a dissertation, so I’ll look at one signature move. Open any page of Roth at random and you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one triplet. One word repeated three times in a single sentence. The same word in three consecutive sentences. A sentence with three nouns or three adjectives or three verbs. A sentence with three adverbs or three prepositions or three proper names. Three consecutive sentences that begin with the same word or phrase (anaphora). Three consecutive sentences that consist of a single word. Three consecutive sentences of dialogue. Three consecutive questions. And permutations and combinations of all the above. One of Roth’s favored techniques is to describe a character’s outfit in terms of three items of clothing. Even when he quotes other writers – such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Anton Chekhov — he uses passages that feature triplets. Roth mentions this technique in Exit Ghost, which confirmed my suspicion that he writes triplets on purpose. Yet despite its ubiquity the technique never gets stale, because Roth’s command of grammar, syntax, and punctuation – especially em dashes, colons, and semi-colons — gives him a seemingly limitless number of ways to write triplets. After I noticed the technique, I started marking triplets with a 123 in the margins – and then using triplets in my own prose (as you might have noticed). As Joan Didion once said: “Nothing is too heavy to lift.”
10. Know when to quit. Roth’s retirement announcement was not entirely surprising. Now a few months shy of his 80th birthday, he hadn’t published a book since Nemesis in 2010, and in Roth time, two years is an eternity. He also hinted at his literary exit in 2011, when he told The Financial Times: “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.” Then again Roth has read plenty of fiction, including all of his own, which is more than most people, myself included, can say.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]