Last weekend, we hit a panel discussion at the Philip Roth festival in the late novelist’s hometown of Newark, New Jersey. We left it walking on intellectual air. Not smugly, but smilingly. It was heady and engrossing. Fun, funny and fascinating.
Called Philip Roth Unbound, the festival was a three-day celebration of all things Roth, from bus tours around his old Newark haunts to numerous panels parsing the formidable genius that gifted us “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “American Pastoral” and “Sabbath’s Theater,” to name some obvious masterpieces. (Need more? How about “The Human Stain” and “Everyman.”)
Our panel was irresistibly titled “Letting the Repellent In: Philip Roth and the Art of Outrage” — right up my twisted alley. A short description from the festival:
“[A] panel on the cathartic power of discomfort. With each new novel, Roth predictably delighted and shocked readers with his frank depictions of human frailty and immorality. No aspect of behavior was spared his withering critical eye — sex, gender, race and religion were all fair game.”
I love it.
The panelists, all novelists, were a youngish quartet of publishing stars, award winners and best-sellers: Ayad Akhtar, Susan Choi, Gary Shteyngart and my personal favorite, Ottessa Moshfegh. They comprised a supergroup of sizzling hot writers, gathered to chat up Roth, his transgressive themes, techniques, cultural impact, and personal influence on each writer.
I won’t recap the 90-minute discussion, but I will say that Choi was supremely poised and verbally chiseled; Akhtar, as moderator, navigated the discussion with shrewd erudition; Shteyngart labored to entertain with cussing and comic schtick, including some mugging (he was often very funny); and Moshfegh, coming across as a cerebral introvert and a smidge neurotic, was refreshing in her sometimes spacey reflections.
To be surrounded by diehard Roth fans was heartening. Too often I feel that Roth is marginalized. He’s either too dirty, too angry, too offensive or too smart. His books aren’t easy; they are verbally dense, lashed in skeins of urgent ideas about life, marriage, love, sex, Jewishness, morality, death, politics, art. They are mean, unsparing, philosophically violent, crude, passionate and hilarious.
Few writers — Saul Bellow is one — could graze such dazzling complexity, that Rothian exuberance, that volcanic, (sometimes literally) orgasmic prose. “American Pastoral” (1997) is one of my top two favorite novels. It sucked my breath away with its relentless moral and artistic propulsion. It should be banned by sheer dint of how good it is.
“Sabbath’s Theater” — described by one critic as “Roth’s coarsest, frankest, and most exhilarating novel, showing off Roth’s linguistic verve, and his unparalleled ability to stare unblinkingly into the psyche of a depraved scoundrel” — is mandatory reading, a master text of style, for anyone pursuing the art of fiction. (I’m about to read it again.)
Roth died at 85, in 2018, without winning the Nobel Prize (though he received many awards, including the Pulitzer). In later years, he was regularly shortlisted, but was likely too incendiary for the milquetoast committee. Every October I would check the paper to see if it was his turn, then throw it down, crushed, livid. Bellow won it in 1976. Faulkner in 1948. Toni Morrison in 1993. Roth would fit right in that company of trailblazing masters.
Maybe he was just too much much. Roth fans are zealous and jealous, and to see the capacity crowds at the festival, chatty and excited, reminded me the great one lives on. Or at least his challenging ideas and coruscating wit live on. We at least have that.