- Philip Roth Is Sitting on Your Face: America in the Late Novels
In 2011 Philip Roth found himself embroiled in a literary controversy when he was awarded the Man Booker Prize over the visceral objection of one of the judges. Arguably, the controversy was prompted by the uncomfortable fact that for fifty years Roth has been a major American writer who never stopped writing and whose apparently endless stream of books have continued to capture the attention of national and international audiences. No living American writer has won more literary awards than Roth (he lacks the Nobel Prize) and when the Man Booker Prize committee decided to go where so many prize committees had gone before, Carmen Calill revolted. In letting her revulsion speak powerfully for itself, she voiced a complaint about his work that has been as persistent as Roth’s capacity to win prizes. Why reward, yet again, Calill asked, a writer whose principal achievement is but to go “on and on and on about the same subject [End Page 833] in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe” (Flood).1
Whether that “same subject” that Calill objects to is defined as “Philip Roth,” “Jewishness,” “subjectivity,” or “immaturity”—or some combination of all these—depends on the reader. There is no doubt that Roth’s career has returned repeatedly and brilliantly to these concerns, just as there is no doubt that many readers have been exhausted by Roth’s novelistic insistence, modernist in orientation and arguably postmodernist in affect, that what a person perceives is always conditioned by and cannot transcend the act of a person perceiving. Because Roth’s novels so consistently return to an autobiographical “I” (usually a writer), often behaving badly while struggling to assert his will against people and forces that seem to oppose that will, Roth’s reader may occasionally feel overwhelmed by the intensity of the perceiving subject Roth portrays. Still, imagining as Calill does, that a writer through his work is sitting on your face and arresting your breathing as you are reading him is, however one interprets it, a remarkable response, one that in the same instant resists and testifies to the power of that writer.
That Roth is and remains a “controversial writer” is an indelible component of both Roth’s writing and its success. Since 1959 when the New Yorker published the twenty-six-year-old writer’s “Defender of the Faith,” he has been publicly getting into trouble with one reader after another. His portrayal of American Jews so incensed other American Jews that one rabbi suggested that “the only logical conclusion any reader could draw from [his work] is that this country—nay that the world—would be a much better and happier place without the Jews” (qtd. in Gooblar 13). Another rabbi, as Roth himself once noted, asked the Anti-Defamation League “what is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him” (qtd. in Gooblar 13).
The anonymous rabbi wanted Roth silenced, but instead Roth wrote Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), the four books of Zuckerman Bound (1979–1985), The Counterlife, The Facts (1988), and Operation Shylock (1993) in reaction to the ire of such readers. Calill’s visceral reaction to Roth’s oeuvre will not inspire a series of counterbooks, but it does provide a perfect period to his long, continually surprising career. Roth, the honors student from Newark, New Jersey, the would-be heir to the American tradition of Ellison, Faulkner, James, Twain, Melville, and Hawthorne, the cosmopolitan promoter of works by Milan Kundera, Danilo Kis, and Bruno Schulz, has executed a victory over his angriest skeptics so complete that they have surrendered the idea of silencing him. Indeed, where his initial angry readers wanted him silenced, his latest angry reader seems figuratively suffocated by his body of work. [End Page 834]
Perhaps the most...