Philip Roth died at a point in American history when separating fact from fiction has become an integral task in our daily political discourse and mental survival. But with a writer like Roth, fantasy and reality are intertwined – we think we know his life story through the stories he created. If we’re to use Roth’s novels and stories to tell his biography, then we ultimately arrive at the conclusion that Roth was a pig – a philandering misogynist who possibly masturbated into a piece of raw liver when he was a young boy, as recounted in Portnoy’s Complaint; that his ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, was as cruel as the racist wife in I Married a Communist; and that Roth himself was also a mystic who tried to warn readers what a fascist-run United States could look like in The Plot Against America. He wrote terrible, troubled men, but the air isn’t dirtied with stories of Roth being one himself. Writing fiction may have been his trade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean what he wrote represented him as a human being.
We do know that, along with a select group of other novelists – including James Baldwin, Thomas Pynchon and Toni Morrison – he helped redefine American fiction in the postwar era; both how it was written and who could write it. He wasn’t the loudest voice from the group of American Jewish literary greats that helped shape the cultural conversation after the Second World War (that distinction goes to Norman Mailer), but he was the sharpest. Roth was rare in that he respected his literary heroes that came before him, but was an iconoclast who came of prominence in a time when literary fiction was a bigger part of the American conversation. He rejected society’s norms, and often veered into the territory of bad taste, especially when judged by midcentury American values. His work has been banned by schools and libraries, and an entire continent rejected him in 1969 when Australia banned Portnoy’s Complaint upon release. Roth could be crude. He talked about sex and used dirty language, but he did it with the poise you’d hope from a great novelist. He openly and brazenly challenged notions, niceties and stereotypes not only held by most of America, but also by his own people.
What the Marx Brothers and Mad magazine were to comedy or the Ramones were to rock music, Roth was for American literature.
The story goes that in 1959, after The New Yorker published his short story “Defender of the Faith,” about a sniveling Jewish soldier trying to play favorites with a commanding officer due to their shared ethnicity, people turned Roth into the poster-child for the self-hating Jew. First came the letters to the editor, then there was a phone call from the Anti-Defamation League to the magazine, and before long, rabbis were decrying Roth in synagogues. He was made into the face of everything Jews didn’t want to be, especially with the memories of the Holocaust still so fresh in peoples’ minds. He refreshed the old stereotypes – the nebbishy Jew, the scheming Jew, the perverted Jew – and people wanted to move away from that, forge ahead and assimilate into the fabric of America. Roth wanted to flip these notions on their head and examine them as human traits, not ones that defined a specific culture. He used Jews because, as every writer is told early on, write what you know.
Roth was one of America’s greatest writers in practice, but also because, to put it bluntly, he simply did not give a fuck. He had his influences, sure; but even today there’s something different about his work, the balance of crass and beautiful prose, terrible people written beautifully; an elegance that takes readers by surprise. He was controversial, daring people to step out of their comfort zones and, especially in work like Portnoy’s Complaint, he could be hilarious.
In a way, what the Marx Brothers and Mad magazine were to comedy or the Ramones were to rock music, Roth was for American literature. He was a sly smile and smartass remark aimed at the establishment, rather than a middle finger or brick through its window. Maybe you didn’t like his work, but sooner or later you came around to understand its significance. When The Paris Review asked him in 1984 if he had a Philip Roth reader in mind when he started a book, he replied, “I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, ‘How he is going to hate this!’ That can be just the encouragement I need.”
Roth often gave us too good a look into the mind of an American man.
It didn’t always work out. The sins of some of his literary creations were just too much for some readers to even consider forgiving; he often gave too good a look into the mind of an American man, to the point that many readers felt his work was in poor taste or simply difficult to approach. But look at his track record – the small library of books he left us with – and you will find more than a few masterpieces. He had at least one stellar book every decade from the 1950s until his retirement in 2012. Reading him chronologically, the evolution of his body of work is staggering. He linked himself to realists like Gustave Flaubert, and later to fabulists like Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz. Again, his willingness to stretch what he could do – to try new and different things, like his Gogol-meets-Kafka-meets-Freud novella The Breast, or his brilliant 2004 alternative-history Nazi novel, The Plot Against America – is further proof of his unwillingness to fall into line.
Great fiction is ultimately about considering possibility, about grasping the reader and leading them to another world. Novels should teach us how to appreciate the art of telling a story, and how to listen when one is being told. But beyond that, fiction should challenge us to question what we know. It should help test the elasticity of our imaginations and embolden us toward empathy by revealing the inner-workings of other people’s minds. And maybe most importantly – and why fiction like Roth’s has been ridiculed or dismissed – is that fiction should help us consider what makes us experience discomfort, and help bring taboo subjects to the surface. Roth did all of these things with a nuance and finesse that might not be obvious at first, but is unmistakable in hindsight. He spent his life writing fiction, and by doing that, he gave us all a lot of very necessary truth if we were willing to look.