- Political Initiation in the Novels of Philip Roth by Claudia Franziska Brühwiler
When I was in graduate school, a classmate was struggling to compose a heavily theoretical, Derridean dissertation on Beowulf. After months of critique over dinners with cheap wine, one of us posited correctly that what he was actually writing was closer to a New Critical reading of Beowulf, which horrified its author to the point he never finished. The language and theoretical framework had simply gotten in the way, obscuring what the dissertation was truly about. I felt something similar when reading Claudia Franziska Brühwiler’s Political Initiation in the Novels of Philip Roth. This is not to say that Brühwiler’s study is densely theoretical—it is not, and I mean that in the best sort of way—nor is it to say that there are not admirable and valuable contributions in this study, because there clearly are. Rather, my feeling throughout this relatively short book was that the overused terminology and language got in the way, obscuring what the critic was trying to reveal about Roth’s novels. Useful, perceptive observations would begin to come into focus, but by the end of the paragraph I would lose the thread and, eventually, interest.
Brühwiler’s study is concerned with “political initiation,” specifically how Roth’s characters construct their political identities, and also how the initiation process recurs throughout one’s life. Her methodology stems from a combination of three disciplines: political science, literary theory, and anthropology. Any approach which can shed new light on texts while expanding the borders of literary study should be welcomed and applauded. That said, such terms as political and initiation are employed so frequently (the former appears twenty-three times over two consecutive paragraphs in the prologue) that their meaning pales (xii–xiii).
Brühwiler’s study is divided into four parts, which “follow the trajectory of initiations, from Roth’s variations on classical initiation stories and their defining aspects to more radical outcomes and, finally, their reversal or denial” (xiv). Part I, which considers Portnoy’s Complaint, outlines “the methodological approach and triangle of disciplines involved” (xiv). Part II, which treats The Plot Against America and Indignation, “is dedicated to instances in Roth’s oeuvre where he followed quasiclassical patterns of initiation stories, yet departed from certain conventions and introduced broader themes” (xiv); it also addresses how literature and reading figure in I Married a Communist and how space and identity operate in The Prague Orgy, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock. Part III considers “political initiation as a total [End Page 379] reinvention or recreation of the self” and looks to racial passing in The Human Stain (xiv). It goes on to address various treatments of terrorism in Roth’s American Pastoral, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, John Updike’s Terrorist, and Paul Auster’s Leviathan. Finally, Part IV focuses on aging in Roth’s later novels (The Dying Animal, Everyman, and Exit Ghost) and demonstrates how his elderly characters “seem to be stuck in their younger...still immature selves” (115).
One of the problems I have with Brühwiler’s study is in trying to hold on to a central thread or argument for a sustained period. For instance, in discussing terminology, she early on cites Mordecai Marcus, who divides initiation stories into three categories marked by their degree of success: 1) the successful initiation which reveals the protagonist’s self-discovery, 2) “[t]he second, literal in-between case [which] takes the protagonist across the threshold of maturity and understanding, yet leaves him ‘enmeshed in a struggle for certainty’ and thus in limbo,” and 3) the situation in which the protagonist is “on the threshold of maturity and understanding, though not sure whether to cross it” (8). This is engaging stuff, and I’m curious to see how Brühwiler will elaborate and perhaps apply these categories to Roth’s novels, yet she quickly proceeds to cite, via Peter Freese, four additional types of “initiation in the anthropological...