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  • Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity
  • Jay L. Halio
Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity, by Ross Posnock. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 301 pp. $29.95.

Professor Ross Posnock has written a very learned and stimulating critique of Philip Roth's fiction. Unfortunately, some readers, especially in Britain, may find his title and subtitle misleading or even off-putting. By "rude," Posnock does not mean coarse or obscene, as the English use the term; and he uses "immaturity" in a special sense, defined throughout the book. Neither term is meant as a disparagement in any sense; on the contrary, Posnock extols Roth's achievement, placing his fiction in a tradition that includes Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, Whitman's poetry, and Dostoevsky's novels. Surprisingly, even Henry James is one of Roth's progenitors, but not in the way many of us are used to recognizing. The James that Posnock refers to is the author of The Portrait of a Lady, specifically to "the antiescapist imperative of immersion that Isabel Archer enacts" (p. 12).

The first epigraph to Posnock's book, from Emerson's essays, gives a good indication of this critic's approach: "I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the truth in all ways." The second epigraph, from Witold Gombrowicz, is rather more cryptic and alludes to Posnock's subtitle: "If you are repelled by immaturity, it is because you are immature." Posnock's thesis holds that Roth rejects "the renunciations required by adulthood" (p. 4) in favor of an immaturity that is "disrespectful of dogma, authority, bounded form—all that insulates one from a more open, less censored engagement with the moment" (p. 11). The immaturity that Roth displays in his work is "ludic, seeking not to dominate but to enter the turbulent flow of what Emerson calls 'counteraction' and Roth will call 'counterlife'" (p. 11).

Although Posnock considers Roth's oeuvre "one vast text," with each book necessarily read within and against the larger whole (p. 21), as would be true of most serious writers, he does not attempt to study each text chronologically or in equal depth. Instead, he says he will work in a "free spirit of appropriation." Well and good. His analyses of the major novels he treats are both thorough [End Page 198] and insightful and fully demonstrate the validity of his thesis. Some of his linkages are especially fruitful; for example, his analyses of Goodbye, Columbus and American Pastoral to his discussion earlier in Chapter 3 of American Jewry. I was similarly struck by his discussion of Theodore Herzl's "dream" and its relation to both The Counterlife and Operation Shylock. I am unaware of any other critic who has drawn on that particular connection.

In his treatment of Sabbath's Theater, but also The Dying Animal, Posnock draws on Dostoevsky. He says: "For Roth, Dostoevsky's embrace of chaos and caprice includes the novelist's affinity for his evil characters" (p. 161). But this is not to claim that any of Roth's protagonist's are inherently evil; rather, that "Dostoevsky is Roth's great predecessor in self-incrimination" (p. 161). In the same chapter he links Mickey Sabbath and Walt Whitman: "In [his] uneasy mix of moods and impulses, and in his porous, leaking, lustful self, holy man Sabbath is soul mate of another New Jersey wanderer—Whitman, especially the poet of 'As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life'" (p. 159). Sabbath, of course, never explicitly mentions Whitman, as Posnock notes, but he "shares his ear for the cries of the dead" and "his capacity to mourn" (p. 159).

Roth's exuberance (my word, not Posnock's) may suggest a rhapsodic quality that is hardly evident in Roth's prose, certainly not in his later novels, whatever we might say of Portnoy's Complaint. This may suggest a contradiction inherent in Posnock's thesis, but a contradiction that, on careful scrutiny, is more apparent than real. Roth is after all a consummate craftsman. His description of E. I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer "turning sentences around" is an apt description of Roth's own serious concern...


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