- The Major Phases of Philip Roth by David Gooblar
When a writer has had as long and fruitful a career as Philip Roth, running now to some thirty books published over more than fifty years, it may be as impossible as it is natural for readers to seek a cohesive narrative of the work. What makes Roth’s fiction Roth’s? In The Major Phases of Philip Roth, however, David Gooblar boldly asserts that he looks for no coherence where there is none, choosing instead to follow the author’s “self-conscious and deliberate zig-zag,” in Roth’s words, wherever it may lead. This admirable approach embraces Roth’s multiple interests and fictional modes—from realism to postmodernism, from “Jew” to “American” as identities, from fiction to fact, from comedy to high seriousness. Yet the very project of identifying “major phases” presupposes finding some measure of both coherence and change, and despite the author’s disclaimer, the resulting narrative in this book is most welcome. Gooblar’s intelligent reading of Roth’s work up to the turn of the century yields rich insight into the resonances and sources of the fiction, even while delineating distinctive patterns and preoccupations in Roth’s style and subject matter.
Most monographs published on Roth have attended to his forms and unique thematic material, and especially to his position as a Jewish American writer. In situating Roth’s oeuvre within recent American cultural history, Gooblar’s closest model may be Ross Posnock’s Philip Roth’s Rude Truth (2006), which broadened Roth studies by scrutinizing the writer’s literary and artistic forebears and contemporaries. Gooblar moves beyond Roth’s literary and philosophical analogues to take into account other influences on Roth’s imagination, such as the environment of Cold War liberalism and the pervasive presence of Freud in American letters at mid-century. Gooblar frames his discussion by arguing that Roth often moves at once both “inward” and “outward” in his contemplation of the self’s relation to the social world—toward the intimate self, and toward the teeming world. In maintaining this fresh thesis with a light touch, the book’s readings remain flexible.
The Major Phases of Philip Roth devotes a chapter to each “phase” of Roth’s career. Gooblar begins by considering the significant demographic shifts occurring for postwar American Jews against a background of both the flourishing, largely Jewish intellectual life dominating New York in the 1950s and the Jews’ growing consciousness of the Holocaust as inextricable from their own history. The first chapter explores the controversial responses [End Page 135] to Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), showing that the fiction of Roth’s first phase not only overtly represents but also embodies the central predicament of how to be a Jewish artist in America—how, that is, to be independent, self-questioning, and committed to a modernist aesthetics of ambiguity and difficulty, like the liberal New York Intellectuals, and at the same time to be responsible to one’s community. The second chapter focuses on Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), whose comic social transgressions challenged the high-mindedness of the postimmigrant generation of Jewish intellectuals who felt compelled to perform “seriousness” as their ticket to cultural integrity, even as Roth’s tale testifies to the anxiety of carrying out such transgressions. The analysis is especially fresh in highlighting how Jewish intellectuals, represented by Portnoy, emphasized linguistic decorum as a strategy of cultural elevation. Gooblar uncovers a painful paradox: when Jewish intellectuals aligned themselves with highbrow culture as a means to redefine their identities harmoniously with America, they subscribed to just the values that constructed the Jew as alien in the first place.
The following chapters inquire into two other broad preoccupations visible in Roth’s fiction. First, in the third and fourth chapters, Gooblar considers how three iconic Jewish figures, Kafka, Anne Frank, and Freud, haunt the content and shape of Roth’s mid-career work. In economical treatments of My Life as a Man (1974), The Professor of Desire (1977), and the Zuckerman novels, Gooblar unfolds the ways in...