- Mocking the Age: The Later Novels of Philip Roth
Writers do not always get the critics they deserve—a scholar, who is also a warm-blooded person, with the life experience and fine tuned reading ability to discern their subtleties—but Philip Roth is well served by Elaine B. Safer, an expert on both the postmodern novel and the comic novel. In her new book, Mocking the Age: The Later Novels of Philip Roth, Safer explores what makes Roth's novels from the last twenty years both so funny and so spot-on in their analysis of American and Jewish American cultural life. Her book covers major novels including The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, and Sabbath's Theater; Roth's "American Trilogy," American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain; and the recent The Dying Animal and The Plot Against America. Each chapter is focused on an individual novel, though all the chapters draw substantially and expertly on the whole of Roth's career.
Safer's analysis is wide-ranging, and over a dozen pages in the introduction she links Roth with other comic writers, postmodernism, autobiography, Jewish themes, and Roth's career-long dialogue with his Jewish interlocutors. Safer's comprehensive approach to Roth's fiction is overdue and welcome, though overly glancing. The individual chapters are, of course, more sustained, and each offers fresh insight into the novels. The first chapter, on The Counterlife, compares Roth to contemporaries Barth, Pynchon, and Delillo—an obvious but usually overlooked context, probably the result of the centrality of Jewish themes in that novel. A chapter on The Human Stain compares Coleman Silk's lifelong denial of his family history to Oedipus Rex (p. 124). The chapter on The Plot Against America offers a tantalizing though insufficiently sustained comparison of that novel's apparently failed ending—resolution through deus ex machina—with similar moments in the works of Dickens. Really? Safer's sweeping knowledge of literature, theories of comedy, Jewish history, and Roth biography points us toward new territory for analysis, but doesn't always fully chart the way.
Safer, who has written other books on comedy, begins with the premise that Roth is fundamentally a comic author, and in his later novels, which are generally more public and capacious, Roth's humor is edged with farce, mordant irony, absurdism, and finally, when there is nothing left to critique, lyricism. Roth's comedy is anything but lighthearted. Safer persuasively states, "At the center of Roth's fiction is the concept that life is an absurd paradoxical theater characterized by the incongruity between the ideal and the real, the sacred and the profane, the grandeur of our aspirations and the grossness of our flesh. . . . It is a Camusian world in which the conflict between the desire for [End Page 171] order and reason is thwarted, time and again, by a reality gone berserk" (p. 9). Along with Camus, Safer points to Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Joyce, though unfortunately, none of the comparisons is sustained. This would require a deeper study of the philosophical premises of modernism and postmodernism than Safer gives in her main text. She nods briefly to a pantheon of theorists, including Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, and Jameson, without engaging with their work. For a serious discussion of these thinkers you have to turn to Safer's endnotes, where she discusses these and other theorists with more subtlety. Why not actually use the theory to analyze Roth's literature?
On the other hand, Safer's expertise with the comic mode makes for truly instructive reading. She makes fine distinctions between irony and absurdism, ludic comedy and grim morbidity, the aesthetic gambols of satire and the postmodernism of existential despair. Safer establishes a background for Roth's humor in Yiddish stories, fiction by Bellow, Singer, and Malamud, and in the literature of Gogol and Dostoevsky. Each chapter parses individual scenes from a given novel to speak to how they achieve their humor. Understandably, writing about humor can be a little like writing a...