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Since 2004 the best monographs dedicated to Philip Roth's novels have produced insightful and nuanced readings that effectively incorporate the postmodern approaches that Roth has so publicly chastised. Beginning with Debra Shostak's Philip Roth—Countertexts, Counterlives, successful scholarly work in Roth studies has considered Roth's canon not only in terms of his peers and his own history but also in relation to continental philosophy, poststructuralist literary criticism, and ethics. Patrick Hayes's Philip Roth: Fiction and Power continues in this tradition with a reading of the direct confrontation between power and ethics in Roth's fiction, understanding his work in terms of its power as literature as well as in relation to the cultural authority it manifests.
The book begins with an engaging and thoughtful introduction that takes up the history of thinking about the function of literature in order to establish Roth's position toward his craft. Hayes considers the relationship between ethics and power, a highly relevant discussion in the postwar period that has seen the traumatic effects of global crises as both cause and effect of issues of representation. Hayes promotes an understanding of the relationship between power and ethics not only in terms of its representation in Roth's works but also in terms of the responsibilities between author and reader. In particular, Hayes delineates Roth's relationship with such thinkers as Lionel Trilling, a proponent of "redemptive aesthetics" (11), and the later theorist Leo Bersani, whose worry over a "culture of redemption" leads him to locate value in an aesthetic of self-shattering (9). As Hayes rightly notes, the focus on redemption in literature—a move Roth appears to reject—leads to "potentially disastrous forms of naïvety and conceitedness, as well as a depleted human spirit that is merely baffled and sickened by the irrational workings of power in the wider world" (15).
With an eye thus fixed on "the irrational workings of power," Hayes argues that for Roth literary works take up the interrelated themes of fiction and power in both content and form; Roth's use of form commands attention particularly by embodying the ways in which political and literary discourses establish a literary argument. Hayes's unpacking of the relationship in Roth's fiction between will and power in daily and national life is one of the monograph's strengths. In "sacrificing" the "satisfaction of strict chronology" of the works in order to engage the novels on thematic concerns across Roth's canon, Hayes is able to show the myriad ways Roth engages questions at the heart of our lives as citizens (28). Organized more [End Page 592] by archetypal experience than by chronology, each chapter shows via juxtaposition the ways in which Roth has been writing about the relationships among fiction, power, and ethics from the beginning of his career to the end.
Hayes charts a trajectory in Roth's career that reveals a keen sense of obligation to balancing politics and aesthetics. One principle that "would remain at the center" of Roth's writing, he explains, is that "the intellectual should have a broadly settled relationship with liberal democracy, and that aesthetic experience should engage ways of caring for the self that are resistant to its powerfully instrumentalizing social forms" (59). Hayes helps us to see how personal politics and aesthetics are inseparable for Roth. A particularly exemplary analysis appears in the final chapter, which takes up 2000's The Human Stain. Hayes seeks to "define the wider public significance of Roth's longstanding exploration of the relationship between literature and power by focusing on his major response to the culture wars in America," elaborating that "the feeling of disjunction the novel arouses—most especially, the sheer difficulty of making its stranger side connect with any of the defined positions of the debate—is precisely where the importance of Roth's intervention lies" (217). Calling "attention to the provinciality of American concerns" in The Human Stain, Hayes posits that "Roth's broader significance lies in the way he transgresses against the pragmatic and moralistic horizons within which...