Of all of the wonderfully insightful Charlie Rose segments on books and writing, the one that sticks with me the most is the contentious 1996 debate between David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner about the current state of literature in America. Wallace was on the heels of Infinite Jest and Franzen was building up to his perfected synergy of the Midwestern America family after two well-received warmups that underperformed commercially. Leyner had a novel and a collection to his name, both of which were highly satirical while maintaining an aura of symbiotic self-consciousness. Wallace was on the cusp of canonization, a distinction Franzen would reach with his 2001 novel, The Corrections; Leyner continued to produce a steady stream of fictional and nonfictional oddities, like his collaboration with Dr. Billy Goldberg, Why Do Men Have Nipples?. And so while Franzen and Wallace need no introduction, Mark Leyner, a man who has spent a career experimenting with style, structure, and genre, seems comparatively under-loved. As Leyner himself bitterly points out in his latest novel, Gone with the Mind, he’s not included in Philip Roth’s “formidable postwar writers” in Roth’s 2014 interview The New York Times. As it happens, Gone with the Mind, is both the perfect introduction to Leyner’s work and demonstrative of the reasons it has languished in relative obscurity.
Many readers feel a certain trepidation when they read fiction infused with factual anecdotes from an author’s life; these anxieties amplify when the writer literally injects his or her namesake into their fiction. This has been the central device of Mark Leyner’s writing throughout his 25-year career. His 1992 debut novel, Et Tu Babe, follows the life of the famous novelist, Mark Leyner. His sophomore romp, The Tetherballs of Bougainville depicts a lauded teenage screenwriter with the same name. For a writer who has made a career out of wry quips and flares of reality mixed with the imagined, Gone with the Mind is a culmination of these tendencies, more a gesticulation of satiric irony than cohesive narrative. Like all of Leyner’s categorical fiction, his latest book isn’t entirely upfront with its distinctions, either as a thinly veiled fiction or an elaborate farce.
In his latest, Mark Leyner the character is the guest speaker at the “Nonfiction at the Food Court Reading Series.” The event is coordinated by his mother, who provides a lengthy introduction for her son at the beginning of the novel. He is there to read from his autobiography — a project that began as a first-person video game wherein the objective is to return to his mother’s womb — to a crowd of two: a Panda Express and Sbarro employee. The narrative is, ultimately, a novel-length speech. While at times it is focused, it frequently rambles on the composition of the fake book inside the metafiction. My experience reading the novel spawned an array of adjectives, often in the span of a few seconds. Absurd, juvenile, sophisticated, selfless, masturbatory, profound. That’s Mark Leyner, and he knows it:
We (the Imaginary Intern and I) used to talk a lot about an olfactory art, some kind of postlinguistic, pheromonal medium that would be infinitely more nuanced than language (and without language’s representational deficiencies), a purely molecular syntax freed from all the associative patterns and encoded, ideological biases of language, that could produce the revelatory sensations of art by exciting chemosensory neurons instead of the ‘mind,’ that could jettison all the incumbent imperial narratives and finally get to something really nonfictional.
Authors frequently insert themselves into their own novels, but they work in ways that keep the end product undeniably fiction. Philip Roth embodied his child self in The Plot Against America, but the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election is purely fantasy. Ben Marcus rewound to his childhood in Notable American Women, which centers around behavioral modification and mind control. Other examples stray closer to the real. Jonathan Safran Foer (real) traveled to the Ukraine alongside American pop culture enthusiast Alexander Perchov (make-believe) in Everything is Illuminated. The voice, age, and background of Foer in his 2002 novel are largely synchronized with the author himself. The Pale King turned David Foster Wallace writer to David Wallace, one-time IRS agent. Douglas Coupland took the rare route of becoming a villain in JPod.
Perhaps the most common insertion tactic for fiction writers is to portray fiction writers. Paul Auster the detective has his identity stolen by Daniel Quinn, the fictitious mystery writer and protagonist of The New York Trilogy. Joshua Cohen is hired by tech billionaire Joshua Cohen to ghostwrite his autobiography in Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. Martin Amis is hired to rewrite a fledgling film in Money. After spending decades toiling with his mammoth fantasy series, The Dark Tower, one cannot fault Stephen King for actually acknowledging himself as the writer of epic series. King’s character literally embodies the struggles he had with bringing the series to an end, and Roland Deschain hypnotizes him in Song of Susannah in order to move the story forward. Leyner mirrors King in terms of breaking the proverbial fourth wall, as Leyner’s character often addresses the audience about his difficulties with finishing his autobiography:
If I were asked by some young, sensitive writer just starting out, what key lesson I’ve learned in life (which I’ll never be), I’d probably say that there is no aperture of egress, however tiny and exquisitely sensitive, that can’t be turned into an aperture of ingress.
If these writers-as-characters serve as a means for propelling their respective narratives forward, Mark Leyner’s layered self in Gone with the Mind is there for the sake of holding back; the work is an attempt to reinvent the conventions of novel structure. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Gone with the Mind plays with the characteristics of a novel in much of the same way that Eggers does with memoir form in his 2001 breakout. Where they differ is in cadence; rhythmically, AHWOSG is very much focused on the delivery of story via written exposition, while Leyner’s clear intent is orality. Eggers dressed up his postmodern memoir with fiction; Leyner dances around truths in a novel. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? likewise commented on the divide between fiction and autobiography. Calling it “a work of constructed reality,” Heti’s hybrid book shares a trait with Leyner’s. She built “A Novel from Life” from the framework of conversations with close friends. Leyner substitutes close friends with mainly his mother, and a smattering of other friends and relatives as he sorts through, and attempts to make sense of, his own life experience:
And it’s only much later in life that we try to retrospectively map out, to plot all the traumas and the triumphs, the lucky breaks and lost opportunities, all the decisions and their ramifying consequences. And I tend to believe that this inclination to look back on one’s life and superimpose a teleological narrative of cause and effect is probably itself a symptom of incipient dementia, caused by some prion disease or the clumping of beta-amyloid plaques.
Leyner, in an effort to subvert the reader from digesting the tale like a conventional novel, introduces the Imaginary Intern, a quasi-intuitive, philosophical entity surmised from a craquelure in the food court bathroom tiles. As bizarre as it sounds, the Imaginary Intern serves as the vessel — a foil for Mark Leyner the character. One can see the Imaginary Intern as the motivations behind writers including themselves in their fictions. In essence, it is the trial and error of entering and wading through the falsehoods of fiction as a living, breathing person in an effort to create a fresh version of oneself:
And this was something the Imaginary Intern and I used to always talk about trying to do in Gone with the Mind, trying somehow to express the chord of how one feels at a single given moment, in this transient, phantom world, standing in the center of a food court at a mall with your mom, but in the arpeggiated exploded diagram of an autobiography.
There comes a point in the novel when readers are likely to go, Okay, yeah, but what’s the point? For me, it was during one of the many dialogues between Mark and the Imaginary Intern.
Cheekily, Leyner lets his mother anticipate and defend him from his reader’s complaints. “I’d say, that’s the great thing about literature. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own interpretation. That’s what I’d say to that.”
In that great Charlie Rose segment, much of the conversation is about books competing with visual media. Leyner, Wallace, and Franzen discuss their concerns about the crowded entertainment market vying for our time. At one point Leyner says, “I have to somehow devote my work to people who may not be great readers anymore.” This statement resonates even more 20 years later, with the advent of social media, the rise of video games, Netflix, YouTube channels, Twitter.
If Leyner’s goals were honest, Gone with the Mind is the product of two decades of searching for the correct formula for the not-great readers, somehow producing one of the most compulsively readable literary novels I’ve read in years. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. This is Mark Leyner commenting on fiction in a way that only he can; he admirably dissects the problems with modern readers while simultaneously building a bridge to new readership. Within the many digressions and the back-and-forth with the Imaginary Intern, Leyner sporadically muses on the human condition and effectively broadens the scope of his narrative:
And I still believe that there are two basic kinds of people—people who cultivate the narcissistic delusion of being watched at all times through the viewfinder of a camera, and people who cultivate the paranoid delusion of being watched at all times through the high-powered optics of a sniper’s rifle, and I think I fall—and have always fallen—into this latter category.
Mark Leyner has spent his career carving his niche and discovering his singular voice. This declarative voice bellows from the food court podium in Gone with the Mind, demanding our undivided attention. Gone with the Mind isn’t the first novel that fictionalizes its author, and it won’t be the last, but it is absolutely one of the most inventive displays of this delicate sort of fictional act. Leyner is an oddity in American literature, a writer of virtuoso talent who chooses to spin genre-defying stories instead of capitalizing on what readers of literature have come to expect from the novel form. I concede that some readers may never get past yeah, but what’s the point? But in the author’s own words, “Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”
Last weekend, my local library hosted a “bag sale” in its basement, one of its occasional fundraisers in which eight dollars gets you a paper shopping bag and free, manic rein to fill it with used books. I look forward to these sales with the childish excitement that once accompanied major holidays, despite the glaring fact that I don’t need any books. Given my hoarder’s mania for gathering them — from give-a-book/take-a-book racks, curbside boxes, friends both generous and easily stolen from, and bookstores new and secondhand — one could make a convincing argument that a sack of secondhand books is one of the last things I need. My house is filled with books, and though I try to get rid of those I no longer care about, such efforts are largely futile. The things gather like autumn leaves at the corners of a fence; no sooner do I rake them away then another heap blows in. I’m running out of places to stash them. Unless I live to 140, I’ll never read them all.
But still: eight dollars.
So on Sunday morning, I descended the library’s rear staircase like a man eager to be condemned, and entered its long, low, yellow-lit cellar, lined with tables, carts, and boxes of books. Thousands and thousands of books. I gave a grandmotherly, white-haired volunteer — is there any other kind? — my eight bucks; she wrote “PAID” on a Trader Joe’s bag and handed it to me. I thanked her, turned around, and waded into the stacks, joining 30 or so others, brows knit in concentration, in pursuit of more books.
It was 11:55.
At noon, in the hardcover fiction section, I made my first pull of the day: T.C. Boyle’s 2006 story collection, Tooth & Claw. I’m not a huge short-story fan, and I had no real intention of taking Tooth & Claw home. But it was fairly new — at such a sale, anything published within the last decade qualifies as “fairly new” — and I love Boyle. So I just held it for a second, looking at its black-and-grey cover, before sliding it back on the shelf. There was a strange tenderness to the act; the impulse seemed to come from the same place that leads me to absently ruffle my son’s hair whenever he passes by.
Two minutes later, crouching above a shallow box of paperbacks, I brought up Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve only read one Russo novel, Empire Falls, and although I enjoyed it, I’ve also lazily assumed that I don’t need to read any other Russos; his work strikes me — rightly or not — as a minor series of variations on a familiar theme. What attracted me to The Risk Pool was its cover; it was an old Vintage Contemporary, a fine time capsule of late ‘80s art direction. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve read in the Vintage line — Yates, Portis, Doyle, Carver — and I’ve never been disappointed by the books’ surreal, pastel covers. The Risk Pool’s was a pleasingly nostalgic painting of a man and a boy resting beside a country road. I took it in, as if standing in a gallery, then nestled it back in its box, needing to move on.
At 12:03, I dropped my first book of the day into the bag: Boyle’s East is East, an early-ish novel of his that I’d never gotten around to. I felt an inane sense of accomplishment, as if I were a St. Bernard who had just discovered a lost cross-country skier. I looked down at East is East in the bottom of the sack; it seemed tragically small and lonesome, and I resolved to find it some friends.
At 12:05, as I again ran my eyes across the hardcover fiction titles, I heard a woman say to a volunteer: “Shoot me if I come back again.” They laughed, and although I didn’t look up, I pictured the joker struggling with a book-overflowing bag, preparing to drag it back to her book-overflowing house. I haven’t reached the point where I need to tell strangers that they may murder me if I try to buy any more books, but I’ll probably get there soon.
I checked my watch. I’d been there for twelve minutes. After East is East, I had tossed a couple more books in my bag (Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Joe Meno’s Office Girl), and I was feeling fairly content until I spotted an old, weathered copy of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. I had no particular problem with or interest in the novel; the issue was that it reminded me that my mother had given me James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird two Christmases ago. That, in turn, reminded me that I hadn’t read The Good Lord Bird — or The Imperfectionists, or Ender’s Game, or A Fan’s Notes, or any other of the dozens of other novels that I’ve picked up over the years, each time thinking, “I can’t wait to read this,” before making the purchase. It was another reminder that I will surely die before I read all of my books, that my descendants will one day be forced to shovel through it all, skeptically asking one another, “Did he actually read all these?” Then, with a Homer Simpson “Ooh,” I spotted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, dropped it in my bag, and forgot about my eventual demise. I can’t wait to read The Plot Against America.
At 12:10, I saw the fourth copy of Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants since I arrived at the sale just fifteen minutes before. It brought me back to a college-era bull-session question I used to pose: Which album do you see more than any other at used-CD stores? (I always went with R.E.M.’s Monster, which, it seemed, everybody bought and nobody really liked.) So was Water for Elephants the new Monster? I didn’t think so. For one thing, between Freakonomics and Eat, Pray, Love, the competition was fairly stiff. Perhaps Water for Elephants is the new Zooropa.
These are what pass for thoughts at a library bag sale.
At 12:18, I found a paperback copy of Steven King’s Lisey’s Story, and pondered its possibilities. I wasn’t wondering whether or not I might want to read it; I had already made that determination at a church rummage sale in July, when I bought the book in hardcover. That version of Lisey’s Story was the approximate weight of an Oldsmobile, and the questions before me now were: 1) Should I take this paperback and, once home, swap it out for the hardcover? 2) Would I actually get rid of the massive thing, or would I just keep them both? And 3) Was I really in the business of buying books that I already owned?
Lisey’s Story went back on the shelf.
At around 12:25, with two more books in the bag (E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother), I realized that I needed to get back home. There were chores to be done, errands to be run, kids to be corralled. I buzzed the children’s section and chose a quick nine or ten titles — Clifford’s Kitten and a Tom and Jerry Golden Book among them — that looked to be in decent shape. Then a peculiar Black Friday anxiety washed over me as I forced myself towards the exit: what was I missing? There was so much still to see! Christ, I barely browsed Nonfiction! My eyesight grew twitchy and granular as I tried to take it all in: every sci-fi novel, every mystery, every moldering Penguin Classic. I picked up something by Arthur Koestler, as if grabbing at a bobbing life preserver, while I moved slowly from the room. Then, with a sigh, I put Darkness at Noon back in its box and walked into the day, struck by the freshness of the air outside. The bag felt heavy in my hand, but not oppressively so. All in all, the previous half-hour had been a success: six more books to add to the top of the teetering mountain. I wouldn’t be back that day; I could survive until the next bag sale, whenever that might be. Nobody would have to shoot me for buying things I didn’t need.
I went to college in the late nineties, when any mention of Philip Roth was prefaced with the label “misogynist.” As a result, I did not read him until I was out of school and attempting to catch up on contemporary fiction. I read Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus back-to-back, expecting to be at least mildly shocked by the subject of these two controversial-in-their-time books. Instead I was more startled by the difference in tone; Portnoy’s barreling comic monologue seemed to have nothing in common with the traditional realism of Goodbye, Columbus. How could this even be the same writer? I decided I had to read more Roth, misogynist or not, and I’ve been reading him ever since. I tend to go on Roth binges, reading three or four of his books in a row. Eventually I get worn out (his books, at least for me, require a lot of concentration) and I take a couple years off until say, the New York Times publishes a list of the best American works of fiction of the past 25 years and six of Roth’s novels receive mention. Or maybe a librarian friend tells me I have to read The Counterlife, that it’s secretly the best Roth, the writer’s Roth.
Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound, a new critical study of Roth’s books, brought me back to Roth again, this time to Sabbath’s Theater, a novel that has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for several years. Pierpont has also persuaded me to take a look at a couple of Roth’s short late books, Exit Ghost and Nemesis. She’s an unabashed Roth enthusiast, so if you’re looking for a provocative critique that delves into the less flattering aspects of his career and persona, then this is not the book for you. But if you’re someone like me, someone who has read Roth on and off for years in a haphazard way, then this book may help to fill in the gaps in your understanding, both in the way it puts Roth’s work in a larger context (social, political, historical) and through its gentle (but astute) assessment of his books.
Pierpont’s approach is straightforward: she reports on each of his books in chronological order, providing reviews of the books, summaries of their critical reception, and, when relevant to the book’s subject matter or creation, details from Roth’s own life. Roth and his books are her primary sources, and in her introduction, Pierpont explains that Roth Unbound began as an essay but turned into a book for two reasons: first, because Roth had written so many books, and second, because he was willing to talk to her about them for hours at a time.
Pierpont’s access comes out of a long friendship with Roth, which began in 2002, after Pierpont, a staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote an article about the anthropologist Franz Boas, someone Roth had researched while writing his (then) most recent novel The Plot Against America. Roth often writes letters to writers he admires, and in the case of Pierpont, it turned into a genuine exchange, with Pierpont eventually becoming a first reader of drafts of his novels. Pierpont’s previous book of criticism, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting The World, is a series of portraits of female artists, including Mae West, Doris Lessing, and Margaret Mitchell. It’s easily one of my favorite works of criticism, one that is especially sensitive to the particular obstacles female artists face. I would never have guessed that Roth would be the subject of her next book. But she is a good match for the material. In Passionate Minds, she marries biographical details to artworks in a way that illuminates both the artwork and the life, and she brings the same precision to Roth Unbound, always choosing just the right detail, and in some cases, just the right word.
Roth’s last book, Nemesis was published in 2010, capping a fifty-year career, and one thing that makes Roth Unbound interesting is that Pierpont was able to interview Roth in the first years of his retirement. You can feel Roth’s reflective, relaxed state of mind as he looks back on his career, cataloging his regrets and triumphs. His regrets mostly fall in the realm of his personal life, most significantly his first marriage, which he believes held him back, emotionally and artistically, for most of his late twenties and early thirties, years Roth now views as lost. Another low point occurred in the late nineties, when his ex-wife, Claire Bloom, wrote a memoir that included a scathing account of her marriage to Roth. The memoir had, in Pierpont’s words, “a tremendous effect on Roth’s personal reputation — perhaps more than anything since Portnoy’s Complaint.” Published in 1996, Bloom’s memoir interrupted a peak moment in his career, coming shortly after the publication of Sabbath’s Theater, which won the National Book Award in 1995, and just before American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. In retrospect, Roth sees the two books as related, novels whose “essential subject” is the “vulnerability, even of the apparently strong.” He also describes the creation of each book as an “outpouring.”
Roth’s insights into his own work are fascinating, but Pierpont’s are more instructive. She’s particularly good on describing his technique. I have always found Roth’s style difficult to grasp; is his prose playful or brutal? Is he telling a story or is he having a conversation? Sometimes he seems sentimental beneath his bluster, and at other times he seems determined to wipe every last bit of nostalgia off the face of the earth. Pierpont acknowledges these contradictions in her assessment:
His style has always been hard to characterize beyond the energy and concentration, the uncanny capturing of voices…He distrusts extended description — the glinting observations of a surrounding world that give Updike’s work its texture — and seems ever wary of the risks of pretentiousness or of diffusing the pressure of the voice.
The comparison to Updike is useful and one that Pierpont returns to several times in Roth Unbound. In one analogy, Pierpont likens Roth to Picasso, “the energy, the slashing power,” and Updike to Matisse, “the color, the sensuality”:
The essential difference in their perspectives isn’t so much Christian versus Jewish, or believer versus nonbeliever, or small town versus city, although it involves all of these. As writers, their greatest virtues seem to arise from different principal organs of perception, which might be crudely categorized as the eye and the ear. Updike was a painter in words…Roth is the master of voices: the arguments, the joke, the hysterical exchanges, the inner wrangling even when a character is alone, the sound of a mind at work.
It’s this mix of voices that makes Roth such an exciting (and sometimes exhausting) writer. It’s also, I think, what makes him so vulnerable to criticism. Just as his prose isn’t clearly beautiful, (as Updike’s is), his opinions are not clearly delineated. He refuses to write about his convictions, only “the comic and tragic consequences of holding convictions.” In fact, Pierpont reports, “there is hardly anything he considers more crucial to his work…one of the great strengths (and sources of confusion) in Roth’s novels — as opposed to his political satire — is that he rarely takes an open stand. Countervoices clutter up every discernible argument, even shout it down.”
The phrase “countervoices” is a reference to The Counterlife, Roth’s fifteenth novel, and one Roth considers a breakthrough, the book that taught him “how to enlarge, how to amplify, how to be free.” Pierpont references it through Roth Unbound, as shorthand for the way Roth uses his fiction to explore the lives he might have lived, the people he might have been or known, and even the alternative histories he might have witnessed. It also alludes to the way Roth has truly lived through his work, devoting hours and days and years to the slippery task of putting his restless mind into books. There will be biographies of Roth, with names and events and objective reporting of facts, but for a portrait of what occupied the majority of his time and thoughts — his fiction — I doubt there will be anything more revealing than this volume.
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]
I saw Salman Rushdie speak at Columbia University about nine years ago. He was a good performer. Put it this way, he had enough charisma to defend the Iraq War, which had started a little over a week before, to a Columbia audience without getting booed. Everyone had an important question for Rushdie. He only had time to take a few and the last was met by a collective groan: “Do you have any advice for young writers?” As people filed out of the theater a few minutes later, you could hear a chorus of undergraduates calling the poor questioner a tool. Rushdie’s answer had been equally dismissive: “If you need my advice, don’t do it.”
I thought about that night, as a study in contrasts, after I saw Junot Díaz speak at Seattle Town Hall last month. Díaz was an expert performer. He paced the stage with perfect posture, gave shout outs to his fellow Dominicans and then his fellow New Jerseyites. He treated the audience’s questions as precious gifts of silver. Almost every comment was “beautiful.” A middle-aged teacher relayed her students’ questions about Drown, which they had recently studied. A young comic book geek of color talked about how good it felt to be represented in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz was there to celebrate the act of reading. When someone asked him what advice he had for young writers, he recommended that they spend less time writing for the approval of other writers and more time writing for readers. He much preferred hanging out with readers than writers himself.
It’s hard to draw a line between this gentle social democrat who seemed so comfortable with his body on stage, as prepared to run for Congress as to appear on Oprah, with Yunior, the acerbic narrator who has lain at the center of Díaz’s fiction for 15 years. Díaz chronicled Yunior’s childhood in his first short story collection Drown and reintroduced him as an angry, smart, and oversexed young man in Oscar Wao. Díaz’s third book, This is How You Lose Her, is made up of nine stories, telling the story of Yunior’s failures in love.
Díaz and I spoke by phone three weeks after his appearance in Seattle, and a few days after he was awarded a MacArthur. A few days after we spoke, This is How You Lose Her was nominated for a National Book Award. He was in New York. What follows is a pared down version of our conversation.
The Millions: I saw you on stage at Seattle Town Hall a few weeks ago. And you were peppering your talk with very academic words – “subjectivity,” “heteronormativity,” “hegemony” – none of which appears in your fiction. When you write your fiction, do you find yourself writing with two voices in your head? One is [that of] the former Rutgers student activist. The other is Yunior’s, which does not have this vocabulary.
Junot Díaz: To move the metaphor towards optics, I’m not certain if it’s that bifocal. I think it’s a lot more complex than that, especially with a character like Yunior who has proven himself in a number of texts to be far smarter than he wishes or allows others to be aware of.
[O]f course – if we’re going to use the tech terms my students [at MIT] use – there’s language that may not appear on the interface but is a deep part of the operating system…A character like Yunior is really aware of these words. He changes his words to best effect. He has no interest in anyone really knowing who he is and in anyone understanding the depths of his complexity. And this of course goes hand in hand with all his failures across the board with women.
TM: You’ve spent about 15 years of your published life and longer, just considering when you started writing him, living with Yunior. What has it been like living with someone like this for so long?
JD: I find someone like him very difficult because as a construct inside me he rarely talks about the things that emotionally matter to him most. He’s so damn elliptical… You think he’s a piece on a chessboard and he’ll do anything I tell him to. But that’s not really the way it works. Each character is a game. And once the rules are in place you got to follow the rules of the game. Even in breaking the rules there are rules…
One [of the] differences [between us] is that I would have made the obvious hardships and dramas vis-à-vis his family [more front and center]. But as a character he doesn’t like to make that stuff front and center. He will state [a problem] or he will dramatize it in the most subdued way. And people are paying attention to other things and rarely notice. I feel like if it were up to me and I just wrote a realistic essay about this character’s life it would be far more frightening [to lay] out the details of it than the fictional representation in the way that Yunior tells stories. He’ll mention stuff that’s happened to him but it’s always on the back burner. Part of me longs for a character who is, how do we say it, a stereotypical memoir-esque character who wishes everyone to know the hardships that they suffered and wants to parade all the traumas around. But he’s not that guy…
He’s been a fascinating person to create and to do work with. In many ways, I owe him both my career and much of my art. But my god, what a difficult cat. He never likes to say things straight.
TM: Out of the nine stories in This is How You Lose Her, you make one attempt in “Otravida, Otravez” to write from the point of view of a woman. Why is that in here?
JD: [T]his of course makes no sense to anyone, but for me it’s one of the larger projects in the book. And this is my thesis in This is How You Lose Her: Yunior’s inability to imagine or sympathize or think about women in interesting ways. It’s revealed at the end of This is How You Lose Her that the book that you have read is the book that Yunior has written. And so we know that he has written “Otravida, Otravez.” And it’s an attempt for Yunior to say, “This is the best I can do with female subjectivity. Does it show that I’ve changed in anyway after everything I have done or doesn’t it?” So in my mind it’s all connected.
The average reader is going to be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The average reader is going to be, “Okay, I need a little bit more help than this.” The average reader is like, “Well that’s a real nice ghost framework, but it’s not present enough at the textual level.” I understand that. I feel that, like a fool, I always try to hide more than I should.
TM: Do you think Yunior could sustain that voice for the length of a novel, not just a short story?
JD: I would raise serious questions about that. [laughs] I don’t know. I think of my own abilities. I think that I, perhaps, might be able to do it. It’s very different when I write the sections of Oscar Wao from Lola’s perspective and “Otravida, Otravez,” from Yunior’s perspective. It is very different when you try to write a piece where there’s no hidden, filtering subjectivity. It’s just my [own] male subjectivity and not this other male subjectivity, [Yunior’s], that I’m trying to critique and also hide behind.
I think I would be bad. Let’s say that in both cases maybe I’d be able to do it but it would probably be very bad.
TM: “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” read like a dark comedy about depression as much as a tragic coda to the collection. There was a long distance between your first and second books, which you linked in one of your interviews to your battle with depression. Was this story your way of writing about depression?
JD: It’s weird, because of course we use whatever experience we have to model whatever we end up writing [about]. So there’s no question that my own depressive state helped me design Yunior’s. But I think part of what mattered to me in this was that larger project. We see a character like Oscar Wao in the novel able to be public in his family that he’s depressive, that life isn’t always easy. [And he does that] even in a culture that like many cultures looks down on many kinds of mental health issues or tries to silence them…
And then I was really interested in Yunior’s character because Yunior is this guy who tries through his body to avoid psychic issues, to use his body to sidestep the psychic weight of trauma. And you know when you’re reading the book what you begin to notice – and again this is my own obsessive egghead shit – is how Yunior begins to somatize slowly his psychic states. He’s not able to address them emotionally. But his body is reacting to the shit that he has to put up with. Whether it’s him biting his tongue and bleeding out or other things that happen to him. And it’s a slow progress. By the end of the book you get that his body can no longer be a block or a shield. His body absolutely collapses as it somatizes fully his own depression, his own misery, his own grief. Grief not only about breaking the heart of the woman he loved but grief about everything that comes before.
There was a silence about depression in the larger culture that I inhabit but even in my own work. I thought [it] would be great to break [that silence] a bit. But again you end up organizing this stuff as an artist. So you do this weird shit where you plot the mental breakdown through the whole book. And you hope that the nerds will figure it out and if not – fuck it – you hope that someday someone else will just enjoy it on another level.
But depression fucking sucks, dude. Depression sucks. And part of you thinks, “Well if I have to deal with being fucking depressed, I’ll figure out some way to make some art out of it.”
TM: You just got your MacArthur grant and I’m assuming you’re going to use that to write your big science-fiction novel.
JD: I’ve had plans before and they haven’t come to shit. So fingers’ crossed, man. That would be the dream.
TM: A number of high-brow literary writers have dipped into science fiction: Colson Whitehead, Kazuo Ishiguro, and even, arguably, Philip Roth in his alternate history The Plot Against America. Do you see any mistakes these writers have made that you fear repeating?
JD: I guess my interest in the genre is actually in the genre. I don’t want to write literary fiction’s take on genre. I actually like the genre. I think that nobody who reads science fiction, no one who reads apocalyptic literature or reads alternate earth literature is confusing Philip Roth’s book for one of the classic texts in the genre. So I do think that there’s stories that are so squarely within the genre that there’s no possibility that they can be slipstreamed, that there’s no possibility for anyone to say, “Oh well this might be fantasy but it’s fantasy for the high brow set,” like someone might say about Lev Grossman’s wonderful novel, The Magicians. “It’s fantasy, but it’s not that kind of fantasy.” And I guess I’m just interested in that kind of fantasy.
I don’t think I’m worried about mistakes as much as I’m interested in writing squarely in the genre and not what is often called slipstreaming. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not colossally privileged vis-à-vis other people who write squarely within the genre. You get the notice that they never get…We are not talking about the hundreds of books written by people within the genre that cover the same ground as some of these literary people but we are talking about these literary people. And the reason we’re talking about them is they’re fucking privileged.
In August, I went to my local bookstore and asked one of the owners, Land Arnold, to recommend a book. I said I was traveling for the next two weeks and needed something to sustain me. He pulled down Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the 25th anniversary edition from Simon & Schuster. “It’s got everything,” Land said. “It’s a love story. It’s a Western. It’s an adventure. You’ll love it.”
Off the bat I liked the cover. I often buy books based on covers. It didn’t even mention winning the Pulitzer Prize. The edition was a large paperback, 858 pages. On the front was a prairie under a sunset of reddish pumpernickel, with stars embedded in the cover, little dots of embossed reflective silver. On the back was a picture of Larry McMurtry looking like Carl Sagan, Texas Ranger. I thought, Now that is an author.
You know how wine critics say a certain bottle has good mouth feel — literally causes pleasure the way it rolls on the tongue and coats your cheeks? Well, Larry McMurtry felt good on the back cover of that book. It felt good in my hand. Hefty. The paper stock was uncoated, pebbly like an expensive handbag; it suggested it would improve with age and use. In the business, I believe this is called feltweave. I bought the book, broke the spine at the register, and smelled it — nothing in the world smells like that. Makes you want to say with sincerity, Golly. Reminds you that the pleasures of reading are bigger than reading. There’s smell and touch. Note-taking and page-tearing. Most importantly, what the book does to your insides. Let’s just say it: Reading a novel should not be an accomplishment unless you’re illiterate. But we all have other options these days for entertainment. Reading for many — most, I bet — is something more often felt by its absence than presence in daily life.
In any case, I didn’t take to Lonesome Dove straight away. It put me to bed: I started it on a flight from RDU to Philadelphia International and fell asleep. But I could fall asleep to fireworks; it doesn’t say much. And I don’t mind a novel that’s slow to start — though I hate them when they die in the middle. I chuck them into the garbage — and that feels great. Maybe I take books too personally, but isn’t that the point? When your intimate trust is betrayed, isn’t that the moment when we’ve all agreed it’s OK to throw things? Anyway, my Philly connection to New Hampshire went to hell, so for the next 11 hours I ran back and forth to the ticket counter, trying to get on a flight. It was not ideal reading time. Though I did manage to squeeze in a George R. R. Martin book — good dwarf scenes is about all I remember — two meals and five Bud Lights, until finally I got a seat on the one plane that departed that day for Manchester, opened Lonesome Dove, and fell asleep.
That quickly changed. For the next two weeks, I only allowed myself an hour a day with Lonesome Dove, to prolong the satisfaction of reading it. The novel is excellent, sustained with constant style, and its dramatic excellence increases, withholding and rewarding, as the cowboys move their cattle north. Even the ending fits together. One night I slept with it under my pillow. I scratched up the margins and read bits aloud. It’s not incredibly deep. But it’s deep enough. And I couldn’t remember the last time I was similarly floored by a long, dramatic, entertaining literary novel. It had been a while . The ones that come to mind from the past decade are Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay; Ian McEwan’s Atonement; Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai…and that’s about it.
Most days I prefer novels that are compact, smart, and acidic — Falconer; House of Meetings; One D.O.A., One on the Way — all the children of Bovary. But no entertainment for me is more rewarding than a great big book. Just imagine if Penelope Fitzgerald had written a 900-pager.
Earlier this year, a book publicist confessed to me while giggling behind her hand, “You know what, I do all of my book shopping on Amazon, isn’t that terrible?” At the time, I didn’t say anything, but, Yes. It is terrible. Amazon’s perks are many, its prices hard to beat, and the Kindle is a great way to sample the latest Michael Connelly. But no human being is going to materialize through your laptop and hand you a book that’s been thoughtfully selected to rock your boat.
I loved Lonesome Dove. I look forward to reading it again. Thank you, Land.
 For big hoary beasts of recent social realism, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson were all great in my book, but they weren’t exactly Great Expectations-level entertainment.
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