- Interview with Bryan Zanisnik
For a reader steeped in the novels of Philip Roth, it must be a wondrous yet unsettling experience to enter Bryan Zanisnik's site-specific installation, the Philip Roth Presidential Library. The installation, as pictured on the front cover of this issue, was first on view at Locust Projects in Miami, Florida, in the spring of 2016 and, as this issue of Philip Roth Studies goes to press during the summer of 2017, exhibited again, in altered site-specific form, at the Queens Museum in Queens, New York. The title of Zanisnik's installation is as double-edged as its contents, at once honoring Roth's status as a preeminent American novelist and deflating the privilege and pretensions that might attach to such a position. In his room-sized installation, Zanisnik immortalizes Roth's novels in multiple copies and editions, piled high as if they might help withstand the weight borne by the supporting columns in which they are tucked. Yet the installation is also a wittily ironic memorial, placing these used, sometimes battered, copies at a physical and temporal distance from the viewer, who peeks at them through torn plaster signifying the decline of the edifice that holds them, and thus, perhaps, of Roth's work. The "library" speaks of an archive, whose very concept implies the preservation but also the passing of the material and its maker. A Roth reader may, then, feel the thrill of recognition followed at once by a rueful sadness—all these books by the master! but shelved, partly hidden from view, and maybe unread.
Zanisnik's barbed but fascinated engagement with Roth and his fiction has an intriguing history, tracing to Every Inch a Man, his site-specific installation and performance at the Abrons Arts Center in New York in 2012. (See back cover.) Although the room-sized installation is filled with dozens of objects, its focal point arguably is a tall Plexiglas box in which Zanisnik stands, dressed only in swimming shorts and goggles, silently holding Roth's The Great American Novel open as if deep in reading it as baseball cards and outdated U.S. currency blow gently around his feet. As Zanisnik recounts below, Roth and his attorneys issued a cease and desist order against him and the gallery, which they eventually [End Page 7] dropped. Derek Parker Royal, the founding editor of Philip Roth Studies, wryly notes in an essay that Zanisnik offered a humorously defiant response to the controversy, "photocopying the cease and desist letter and strewing the pages around his installation, where it became part of the debris" (Royal 24).1
When we considered developing this special issue on "Other People's Roths," we returned to Bryan Zanisnik, who even before constructing the Philip Roth Presidential Library was clearly not yet done with Roth. In 2013, he composed a photograph of fourteen by nineteen inches, A Cup of Coffee For the Man in My office. The collage piece features, among other scattered objects, the curled front covers of a number of Roth's novels as well as several copies of a hand-drawn, cartoon-like image of Roth alluding to American Pastoral, and the whole is irregularly imprinted with multiple stenciled "P" letters. The meaning of the piece is ambiguous but its preoccupation with Philip Roth is not. (Images of all of Zanisnik's work can be found at his website: http://www.zanisnik.com)
We thus have become deeply curious about Zanisnik's "Roth." Among other things, we feel that his ironic playfulness with the reception of The Great American Novel in his performance of Every Inch a Man offers a provocative angle on Roth's art and its dependence on audience—an especially resonant effect since Roth's 1973 novel itself conjures artistic failure in referring directly to the now-canonized work of an "unsuccessful" American artist, Herman Melville, whose fiction sank into relative obscurity in the U.S. for decades. Roth flouted the writer/reader relationship by artistic acts both disarming and arrogant: he preempted negative reviews of the Great American Novel by including imagined rejections by publishers in the novel itself...