Philip Roth has been publishing for over fifty years—and for almost twenty years after his quintuple-bypass surgery. Since this brush with death, Roth has not won the Nobel Prize, but he has won almost every major American literary prize—Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, PEN/Faulkner Award—and each of these prizes has been given to a different book. For a long time, Roth must have felt stuck with the reputation of being the author of the scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint published back in 1969, but now perhaps he is known as the author of more recent works, such as Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain.
When one wants to introduce people to the works of Philip Roth, where should one advise them to begin reading? Can one start with his recent novel Exit Ghost (2007) without knowing the other related books? Exit Ghost features, facing the title page, a rather intimidating list of twenty-eight Roth titles, grouped as “Zuckerman Books” (of which Exit Ghost is the ninth), “Kepesh Books,” “Roth Books,” “Miscellany,” and “Other Books” (where Portnoy’s Complaint is placed, making it seem almost buried). Or let me put the problem in a more practical form in terms of teaching: if one assigns to an undergraduate [End Page 892] class a novel by Roth, can one give students confidence that they will be able to write an intelligent research paper without reading an entire shelf of Roth?
The Founder and President of the Philip Roth Society, Derek Parker Royal, has gathered here, in Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author, essays that can be of great help in addressing the problem of how to approach the serious study of Roth’s works. This collection provides an overview of Roth’s career up to The Plot Against America (2004). Joining Royal among the contributors to the volume are such established critics as David Brauner, Alan Cooper, Bonnie Lyons, Ranen Omer-Sherman, Elaine B. Safer, and Daniel Walden, who provides the foreword.
Royal’s introductory essay points out that the essays that follow present Roth’s works in basically chronological order and that all the chapters use the same format. After briefly introducing one or more books and summarizing the plot(s), each chapter examines various literary elements and the critical debates that attach to these elements and then, most importantly, puts each book into the context of Roth’s career. Reading this entire collection, one gets a good sense of the entirety of Roth’s work, of the connections among works, of Roth’s response to his favorite writers (especially Kafka and Bellow), and of the different stances that Roth has taken on the themes he has addressed over the decades: the American family, the suburbs, ethnicity, fame, gender, death, the complex joys of metafiction, etc. Each of the authors also attempts to contribute the newness promised by the book’s subtitle, but the main value of this collection is in its spelling out of a mass of linkages. (I should mention that Roth has published Everyman and Indignation as well as Exit Ghost since this collection appeared, but the book’s usefulness as an overview still holds.)
Of course, in such a large, various book, one is sure to encounter some things to quibble with. I wish more typos had been corrected. Also, one cannot agree with every opinion expressed. I do not share contributor Anne Margaret Daniel’s enthusiasm for the baseball jokes in The Great American Novel, and I like When She Was Good more than contributor Julie Husband does. (I was interested to see Husband refer to Lucy Nelson’s “improbable demise,” given that it was likely inspired by a real event : since examining Roth’s manuscripts at the Library of Congress, I have speculated that Roth probably based Lucy’s death scene on a tabloid article that was stuck in with his drafts that tried out other possible endings.) Most of the time, reasons...