- Talking about Philip Roth
Controversy arises in the wake of every new book Philip Roth publishes. From the very beginning of his career, the novelist has earned praise; but he has never eluded censure. In 2002 he was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and in 2005 he became the third living American writer to be included in the Library of America. Yet if not dissension, then contention still excites the reactions literary critics and general readers have to Roth: they respond passionately to his work, deeming it either an extraordinary achievement or else an egregious display of narcissism. The appearance of two recent critical books on Roth's career testifies to the disputes sparked by his work. The collection of essays The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth, edited by Timothy Parrish, continues the "critical conversation" (7) on Philip Roth. However, Ross Posnock's Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity takes Roth criticism to a new realm, as Posnock discloses that Roth's eschewal of the consistency belonging to maturity and his espousal of the rudeness inhering in immaturity engender the truth the novelist is unafraid to reveal. Two great traditions promote the art of immaturity to which, Posnock believes, Roth subscribes: the American one that consists of Emerson, Melville, and Henry [End Page 613] James and a twentieth-century one that includes Eastern European writers like Milan Kundera. Such a discovery situates Roth not in the narrow category of American Jewish literature but in the pantheon of American letters.
This conviction rests on the central issues Parrish locates at the core of Roth's work: "intertwining personal and communal identities, sexual politics and practice, the postmodern world and the place of America in that world, self-invention in the context of human annihilation and acts of terror, and racial and cultural pluralism," in short, the "realities of American culture" (3). The essays in The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth attest to Parrish's view, for they reflect the disparate approaches critics bring to Roth's work, affirming its contradictory and complex nature. What these essays also make apparent is how keenly author and reader interact and how robustly Roth's critics continue to debate the meaning of his work.
Victoria Aarons's essay, "American-Jewish Identity in Roth's Short Fiction," begins the critics' conversation in the Cambridge collection. It is Aarons's contention that Eli Peck's obsession with his identity as a Jew in "Eli, the Fanatic" epitomizes Roth's protagonists, who constantly wonder "how Jewish is too Jewish?" (13). Having suppressed his own Jewish identity and reinvented himself as a Jew who is acceptable to Gentiles, Eli leads what Roth later calls a "counterlife," or what Aarons identifies as an "alternate reality" (10) contrived to avoid being a Jew. Like the rest of the characters in Roth's short fiction, Eli Peck exposes the ambivalence besetting the Jew in America after the Holocaust. The source of Roth's idea of a counterlife, Eli is as obsessed with Jewish identity as are all the characters in Goodbye, Columbus.
The process of determining our identities, Derek Parker Royal avers, attaches Philip Roth more to intertexuality and metafiction than to a literary patrimony. Royal's essay, "Roth, Literary Influence, and Postmodernism," makes plain that ascertaining the influences on Roth's texts is unavailing. Without apprehension of its intertextuality, Roth's work, he argues, is simply incomprehensible. Royal draws on Michael Riffaterre's definition of intertextuality as "the perception of similar comparabilities from text to text," like the references to James's Portrait of a Lady that undergird the opening [End Page 614] pages of Roth's Letting Go.1 It is their reliance on intertextuality and the metafictional themes of the novelist's texts, not the simple identification of his sources, that illumine the hidden chambers of Roth's fiction. Showing us...