Sunday, January 20, 2013

I'm adding Philip Roth to my list of American authors I won't touch with a ten-foot pole, authors whose badness boggles my mind:

Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms)
William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom Absalom, Wild Palms)
F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night)
Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon)

I just finished Portnoy's Complaint. The book apparently owes a debt to stand-up comedy, and I think is meant to roll the reader along on waves of vitality and "wicked humor" (to quote a reviewer), but — I just didn't find it very funny. I could tell when Roth (or Portnoy) was trying to be funny, I could practically see him winking ("Look at my joke!") but more often than not I had to groan at his lame puns and his contrived Freudian paradoxes. And the ethnic stereotypes — the fact that there's a kernel of truth to them, or that it's done (more or less) with affection, doesn't rescue his characterizations from shallowness.

Otherwise I don't know what to say. Being all about sex doesn't necessarily sink a work — Y Tu Mama Tambien pulls it off. (But it's hard.) A maniacal monologue can be a masterpiece — Hamsun's Hunger. And misogyny can be fascinating: The Kreutzer Sonata. But Roth isn't in that league. (To give him his due: I didn't have any trouble turning the pages. Portnoy's Complaint is an easy read.)

Take a small detail: the totally predictable surprise ending. Roth prefaces it with a little title: "THE PUNCHLINE." I was reminded of a child's drawing complete with labels: "THE SUN." "MOMMY." "MY DOG." That's the kind of clumsiness that characterizes the whole novel, though it's more often filtered through an "adult" sensibility. (To belabor the obvious: adult = arch, annoyingly arch, and adult = pornographic.)

Question: What do the authors listed above (except Hemingway) have in common? Answer: The conviction that more is always better. Melville could really write like this, and so could Whitman, and since then many — perhaps most — American writers have apparently considered it their artistic-patriotic duty to pile it on, structure and style be damned. But what stands out in these twentieth century successors is their lack of control — on every page, in every paragraph a poor word choice, an incoherent metaphor, shaky syntax, choppy transition — and the whole thing teeters and collapses before it's out the door. And there's more: the irrelevant or unwarranted authorial contempt or adulation that seeps through, the wallowing around, the working oneself into a frenzy in the fond hope that the reader will join in — I could go on, but I suppose there's no point if I can't quote and give page numbers. These people write as if they were throwing mud at a wall.

(I hate Hemingway just as much as the others, but he can't fairly be accused of excess. Still, his repression is a symptom of hysteria as tiresome and ostentatious in its own way as the ravings of these others.)

On a happier note: I liked Atonement a lot. Now there's a writer who has the situation under control! According to D. and waggish McEwan can be even too controlled, and I believe it, but Atonement strikes the right balance between the freedom of the characters and the control of the author, thanks to a style tethered by intelligent, patient observation and a brilliant plot — not just a clever plot, but one that sets up a spellbinding moral conflict. The characters come to life in the confrontation with their consciences, and this works even retroactively, even offstage, when we only hear about them from other characters.
I liked — loved — the clever post-modern touch of the very thoughtful letter from the editor of Horizon, not so much the clever post-modern touch of the ending… but I don't want to give anything away.

Fun fact: McEwan likes Roth. He said so himself, in an interview. I don't know what to make of that. (generation?)


Kaveri said...

i'm scared to get you any more books!

Jake said...

What's specifically wrong with Faulkner and Morrison?

I couldn't finish Portnoy's Complaint. It was so all over the place that I felt like I was reading someone's rambling, free-associative diary. If you are going to go down that route, best be entertaining, word for word.

Nanette Elfstocking said...

Here's what I didn't like about Wild Palms. I felt the same way about The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom.

Morrison… Well, a few years ago I read Song of Solomon, but I didn't write anything about it at the time. Morrison's not as perverse and unbearable as Faulkner, but, as I remember, she has the same habit of grandiose, clumsy gestures, and her prose, which often shades purple, cannot bear the weight of her ambitions. I remember being often embarrassed. I was reading it with a student, and when he started reading choice overblown passages out loud for laughs, I felt a great relief — "I may be the teacher, but I don't have to pretend to like this!" — and joined in the fun. If I were to re-read Song of Solomon I would be able to be more specific, but life is short.
(To be clear: I love fine, even lofty prose — Melville and Woolf are among my favorite authors. But it takes enormous talent, and these writers just don't have it. It's like watching a bear dance.)

Kaveri said...

I don't know why out of all of Philip Roth's dozens of books I picked this, the least Gabriella-appropriate, to give you. (I guess out of the three Id read at the time I fond it the most entertaining.) But seriously, it's not doing Roth justice if you come away thinking he lacks (as you say in your comment) the talent for fine and lofty prose, or that he has no control (the "pile-it-on" mode is only one of his modes). You should try another book. I'm reading the Ghostwriter right now --it's masterful, and it's also really short, so it wouldn't be too much of a commitment.

Nick Moschovakis said...

How come the comments seem to predate the post? I don't get it. Anyway, I agree with Kaveri that you shouldn't write Roth off wholly without a look at something else. I liked American Pastoral and The Human Stain; and I remember (though it's been many years) liking his very early bildung-novella, Goodbye Columbus.

Gabriella Gruder-Poni said...

Hello Nick! The comments precede the post because I took the post off-line, and then reposted it recently without back-dating it. And the reason for that is... I posted part of it on Mary Beard's website (she wrote about not liking Roth, and asked who else doesn't like him), and then that comment was published in her recent book All in a Don's Day, her second selection from her website "A Don's Life." It just seemed poor form to have that comment in so many places. But then I got over my unease, and here it is again.
I might read some other novel by Philip Roth, after I read everything else on my list.