Philip Roth, ranked

Good, bad, worshipful, scandalous — writer Philip Roth is making boldfaced headlines again, four years after his death. His largely acclaimed new biography and its author Blake Bailey are under fire, while publications like The New York Times are issuing fresh appraisals of his almost 30 novels and memoirs, like this and this.

This longtime Roth fan joins the chorus. I haven’t tackled all of his books but I have read his most celebrated titles, from “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) to “Nemesis” (2010) and many in between. What follows are my five favorite Roth novels, with an obligatory postscript about a glaring omission.

 1. “American Pastoral” (1997) — Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winner may be the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s deep, thorny, complex, timely and so rich with perception and wisdom — communicated in ferocious, passionate prose — that you’re stuffed after each sitting. But it’s not difficult. Tracing the life of one Swede Levov and his daughter’s radical political terrorism in 1968, “Pastoral” gradually becomes an epic tragedy about recent American history and our hero’s inevitable descent. A biting, indelible masterpiece.  

2. “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995) — Raunchy, stylized, rip-snortingly funny and  aggressively profane, this cathartic gush of undiluted id is Roth at his sweatiest and most swinging, a big bite of eros that “shows off his linguistic verve and his unparalleled ability to stare unblinkingly into the psyche of a depraved scoundrel,” raves one critic. Winner of the National Book Award, this feverish, in-your-face opus isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. What it is: crudely sublime. 

 3. “The Human Stain” (2000) — A dean of a college faculty is ousted after he makes a loaded, if ultimately benign, remark interpreted as racist. He holds a shocking life-long secret close to his vest in this, “one of Roth’s most complex moral conundrums,” which came out during similar dramas unfolding in academia and beyond. The book bristles with Roth’s fanged moralism; the writing is poignant, alive, uncompromising. 

4. “Operation Shylock” (1993) — What could have flopped as an elaborate literary stunt winds up one of Roth’s richest masterworks. “His best use of autobiography and his most incisive use of meta-techniques,” a critic writes, “the novel pits Philip Roth against an imposter, a man going around using Roth’s name and identity to proselytize about the necessity for Jews to return to Europe.” Crazy, but that’s its brilliance. Roth’s facility with form proves, again, formidable, his wit and playful intelligence on dazzling display.

 5. “Everyman” (2006)— A meditation on “one man’s lifelong skirmish with mortality,” this slim book, part of a quartet of late shortish novels, marks Roth’s return to the profoundly personal following the speculative politics of “The Plot Against America.” Haunted by death, the protagonist looks back on his life, from childhood, marriage and divorce, to old age and sickness, all the while reflecting on the inevitable — his own impending demise. Bracingly elegiac.

P.S. About that other famous book everyone so adores, the one in which the hero masturbates with a piece of liver: Don’t overestimate the frenzied gimmickry of “Portnoy’s Complaint,a worthy early volume (1969) whose onanistic perversities, both smug and farcical, fuel the novel’s shrill pitch. I like this ribald coming-of-age comedy well enough, but it’s more exhausting than exhilarating, minor Roth at its most breathlessly attention-hailing. It made him a literary star. 

Turning the page, in literature and life

These days, I seem to only get high on the fumes — the thick, inebriating perfume — of words. I just read a fine passage in my current book and it brushed the orgasmic. To write like that, to make literary music, is the best thing, the very best thing. It matches, maybe surpasses, love.

Too much? Too loopy? Probably. But great art does that — it makes you dizzy. During the pandemic captivity, I’m reading with fiendish greed, in oceanic gulps. I’m buying with crazy zeal. And you probably can’t get that book you want at the library because I already checked it out. Terribly sorry.

More than ever, I grab the written word for solace, inspiration and spiritual nutrition. Yet while I crack mounds of books, I don’t always finish them. I am a notorious book-slammer, shunting aside titles that don’t rivet me by page 50 or so. Mediocrity won’t cut it. I’ve had enough meh, oof and blah. Especially this year.

These are grim days — both of my parents died in the past year; the Covid terror seethes; the Trump shit-show blunders on; some personal turmoil has body-slammed me; pick your catastrophe — and lots of us look to art for escape, empathy and temporary amnesia. 

Art extends beyond the written word, of course, so I’m still listening to music, watching films and TV shows and streaming all manner of streamy abundance. 

Stuff that stands out: the wise, tartly funny Pamela Adlon comedy “Better Things,” in which Adlon plays a frazzled single mother of three offbeat daughters and simply tries to, well, cope; the bizzaro “Pen15,” a cringe comedy starring two 30-something women playing seventh graders with boggling juvenile verisimilitude; and “The Crown,” that tea-time telenovela about British royalty that entrances, despite me caring less about the real Royals than I do about carbuncles.

“Pen15” (yes, these ‘girls’ are really in their thirties)

I always have to nitpick at year’s end, too. Always. If the just-fine though room temperature chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the sublime, it ably outclassed other hot streamers, like the broad, shrill “Schitt’s Creek” and the animated “BoJack Horseman,” whose mordant mopiness was mistaken for hip profundity. (Speaking of adult animation, does anybody still watch “Archer,” the subversive, devilishly clever cartoon on FX? Join me.)  

Thanks to Covid-contorted release formats, I’m behind on new movies, especially presumptive Oscar contenders. I did try to watch David Fincher’s tediously diffuse “Mank” but couldn’t finish it, and, yes, I can tick-off all of its esoteric Hollywood references. I’m skipping Spike Lee’s Vietnam fantasia “Da 5 Bloods” for two reasons: It doesn’t look very good and Lee’s track record of great films is plain disheartening. (I will also be skipping “Wonder Woman 1984,” grumbled grandpa.)

This is what kind of year it’s been: Mere weeks ago I watched and can recall almost nothing about the admired indie “First Cow” by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favorite minimalist filmmakers, except that some guys make yummy biscuits. I’m renting the scruffy period piece again to see what I’m blanking on.

Movies I’m looking forward to include the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (by the director of 2017’s extraordinary “The Rider”); the viral documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery mollusk; and Frederick Wiseman’s typically sprawling doc “City Hall.”

“My Octopus Teacher”

And yet for all that — let’s swoop back to the start of this entry — books are my sweet spot right now. In the past few tumultuous months I’ve savored “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the ravishing third novel in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series; Jess Walter’s jaunty period saga “The Cold Millions”; and “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s quiet thriller about race, class, marriage and other thorny things.

But what’s providing the most satisfying literary kicks are titles from the New York Review Books Classics series, an eclectic spread of fiction and nonfiction from the past, each book a minimally designed paperback that bespeaks worldly elegance. Called “discoveries” by the publisher, the books are “established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected and unheard of.”

I now own 13 terrific novels from the series, with another  — Leonard Gardner’s gritty boxing drama “Fat City” — on the way. Today I’m reading the noirish “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham (midgets, mediums, mendacity). Before that was the twisty, eerily timely crime thriller “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote cult classic “In a Lonely Place,” part of the series I also devoured. 

My NYRB Classics collection

What’s getting me is the power of words, the emotional and psychic heft, the sheer salve of art, and the attendant awe. I’ve always loved books and any words on paper (and screen), but I seem to love them more in the rotten times, a stretch so shitty, I haven’t touched this blog in over three months. I hadn’t the urge nor the heart. Fall, my favorite season, gone wasted. 

Maybe I’m uncoiling from a prolonged flinch. I don’t know. But this, now, during some of the very bleakest days, is where I’m at. Turning the page in another chapter.

Quote of the day: on writing

“Understood: language would end up falsifying everything, as language always does. Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about — these are the only writers I want to read anymore, the only ones who can lift me up.” 

from “What Are You Going Through,” the brilliant brand-new novel by Sigrid Nunez

Homebound, book-bound

The neighbors down the street have acquired a tiny spotted piglet and that means nothing, because that’s not what I’m here for. Just thought I’d mention it as a friendly neighborhood bulletin, despite its thoroughgoing irrelevance to anything on this page.

I’m here to talk books — books I’m gathering around me like a collective paper blanket during the sheltering in place (my least favorite term for the eternal quarantine). I have mentioned I’m ordering new and used books hungrily, and now the stacks are rising precariously. Somebody stop me. 

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Over time I’ve read three or four novels and story collections by the daring, queasily beguiling Ottessa Moshfegh, whose darkly defiant streak, which runs from addiction to murder, poop to pathologies, has never been as palpable as in her 2016 debut “Eileen.” I just gobbled up the slim novel and I’m savoring its bitter aftertaste. I wanted to be ready for Moshfegh’s much-anticipated novel “Death in Her Hands,” coming out in two weeks. Hardly a spoiler: It’s being called perverse and strange. Bring it on.  

In a snap of energetic laziness, I skipped the first two books in Elena Ferrante’s universally lauded series The Neapolitan Novels, which kicks off with “My Brilliant Friend,” opting instead to watch the first two parts in the epic HBO adaptations (luminous, devastating). Now I’m into the third book, “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” and it makes me anxious: How much lush, moving prose did I miss by not reading the first two books? Yet another literary project materializes. 519LmMYfn-L._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_There’s a handful of hip, youngish, mostly male writers I avoid because of both their grating public images and callow, look-at-me writing (see ya, Dave Eggers). Journalist Chuck Klosterman, who specializes in rock and pop culture at large, has always made my belly twist at the teensy bit of his I’ve read in the likes of Spin magazine. He’s published loads of essay collections, like “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” and “Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas,” the latter of which I swallowed hard and purchased. Surprise — it’s damn good. With a mix of irreverence and shaggy erudition, humor and a swingingly unadorned style, the author asserts a penetrating, smarter-than-his-subjects but not condescending attitude on everyone from Britney Spears and Radiohead to Metallica and Robert Plant. A pop culture polymath, a smart-aleck with a laser-pointed pen, Klosterman is good company.

41N3Bj9x7IL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Also a delight are the words of the late David Carr, the New York Times media columnist who in 2015 dropped dead in the Times newsroom, a fact that might have tickled the celebrated super-journalist. “Final Draft,” a new collection of his writing from the past 25 years, reveals a passionate pro and consummate stylist at his best. We get reportage and ruminations on racism, personal addiction, media blowhards, personalities and the often checkered texture of journalism itself. Carr was a star. This book shows why. Unknown And now, the pig:

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The smart, tart prose of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore astonishes, still, her writing shiny, poetic and brainy, the best kind of literature. It’s massively, richly human, striking each note, from humor to horror and all in between. She’s a blistering deterrent for ever trying to commit fiction. If I can’t be that good, I don’t want to be anything — that’s my thinking. My stabs at fiction have been leaden, lame, laughable. 

I am re-reading Moore’s acclaimed story collection “Birds of America.” On its release in 1998, a writer friend and I were both reading the book, and I told him that her writing made me jealous, defeated. “Oh, not me,” he said. “It inspires me.” (That from the guy who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in his early 20s.) 

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Today Moore’s ecstatic prose inspires me, too, provides oomph, a kick to my motivational motor, spurring me to tap the keys and say something, anything. That can be dangerous. If it’s any good, most writing is. (I know — that’s axiomatic.) 

What I mean is, I can write stuff so sloppy, witless and rancid that it’s actually toxic — it wounds and discourages. Then I can pick up a book by Moore or her peers (say, Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff) and be pacified by sheer beauty and slashing craft and get revved again at the possibilities — the old can of spinach. 

Moore’s written four story collections: “Self-Help,” “Birds of America,” “Bark” and the brand-new anthology “Collected Stories” from the prestigious Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. And three novels: “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”

I read the latter and liked it, but I don’t remember much about it. “Birds of America” is different. It’s stickier, droller, more dynamic, more prismatic. It’s spiky, empathic, bright and cynical. Though she’s no maximalist, less isn’t Moore: Her words contain worlds. (And her titles are often titillations: “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”; “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”)

I forgot to mention the stories are also crackingly funny. Moore’s effortless humor, mostly of a mordant strain, ribbons through the dramas organically. She’s no stand-up comedian like novelist Gary Shteyngart, who’s forced and erratic. With sociological rigor, she locates the dark laughs baked in the everyday.

Lorrie-Moore.jpgShe is particularly good at the jolt-laugh of the unexpected:

“The next time Bill saw her, it was on her birthday, and she’d had three and a half whiskys. She exclaimed loudly about the beauty of the cake, and then, taking a deep breath, she dropped her head too close to the candles and set her hair spectacularly on fire.” 

And she’s bracing when she goes darkly wise:

“This is what he knows right now, with dinner winding up and midnight looming like a death gong: life’s embrace is quick and busy, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts.”

My next book purchase will be “Bark,” Moore’s 2014 story collection, which I find hard to believe I don’t already own. I’ve put it off, sure that it can’t touch the brilliance of “Birds,” that it’s a disappointment in waiting. But revisiting her masterpiece blots out doubt. How can it be weak or wan? It can’t, I say. It can’t.

‘When writing is fun, it’s not very good.’

I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good. If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light.”

— Russell Baker, journalist and two-time Pulitzer winner, who died in January

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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway 

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On reading and writing: quote of the day

Following my prior post about being a writer, I resort to the pith and punch of William Faulkner who said that anyone who wants to be a writer should be a reader first:

Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

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And if you want to be a great writer, you must absolutely smoke a pipe.

The queasy leap of calling oneself a writer

I hate saying I’m a writer. I hate the way people’s faces light up, as though I’ve told them my secret kink. Oooh, a writer. How one expects them to follow up with la-de-da and a twirl.”

Bethany Marcel at Literary Hub 

What’s so bad about that? I’d love to get a trill and twirl when I tell people I’m a writer. 

I half joke, because I get where Marcel is coming from. Saying you’re a writer is a slightly loaded statement, even a bit mortifying. As Marcel notes in her Literary Hub essay “How to Say ‘I’m a Writer’ and Mean It,” people always want more information: What do you write? What books have you written?

They get nosy. The perceived glamor attached to the writer’s life entrances. Sometimes people are lightly starry-eyed. Other times they’re simply curious. Other times: meh.

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But it’s not so simple. Saying you write is like saying you act, or tame lions. It’s exotic. It’s oft-misunderstood. Writers are outliers, and sometimes writers believe all the romantic rubbish that attends the title. These run from literary saplings (earnest neophytes who read too much Stephen King) to the bluff and blustery (Hemingway, Mailer).

Yet while many writers are unswerving blowhards (with beards to match), lots of them are painfully introverted and suffer a “shyness that is criminally vulgar,” to quote a famous ’80s British pop band. 

That’d be me. As Marcel says, “I’m bad at talking about my work. Like many writers, I’m shy. I care too much what people think.”

I for one wince when people say they’ve read my stuff, even if they’re complimentary, or when an editor scours my copy line by line, syllable by syllable. I’m a raw nerve. I feel naked and nauseated. Writing in many ways is a performance, and I have stage fright.

For a long stretch my speciality was arts and celebrity journalism, with a focus on film, not fiction, though I always dreamed of writing the latter. Marcel says that she’s “ashamed (she) was too shy to major in journalism in college. That (she) feared the prospect of conducting interviews so much (she) majored in literature instead.” 

I was the opposite. I majored in journalism. I was too nervous to take creative writing classes — all that reading your work aloud, all that classmate critiquing. I finally took a fiction course in my late-20s, a university night class. I lasted one meeting. 

What happened was exactly what I dreaded would happen, a variation on my worst nightmare. The class of about 20 students was instructed to write a short story in 15 minutes and then read it aloud. Horrified, I decided in that instant I would drop the course the next day, and I did, no refund.

Speaking before groups, even at the dinner table, has always been excruciating for me. I won’t even say grace. Large work meetings give me intestinal anguish. On numerous occasions I’ve been invited to speak to writing and journalism classes. I turned down all offers, with a blush, and utmost relief.

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A creative writing class — a Circle of Hell.

Yet I find interviewing people easy, almost extremely so, even invigorating, which is odd when I’m the first person to leave a house party because such events are just too people-y. 

Unaccountably, I enjoy asking others about their life and work. I possess a thirsty curiosity to learn about all manner of personalities, walks of life, mannerisms, pastimes, love lives, favorite foods, what have you, while a tape recorder takes it all down. I’m voracious for copy fodder. I just like to write about people, places, happenings, stuff.

For years I was a culture critic. I was known to be mean, mordantly honest. An asshole. Since college, when I was the campus newspaper opinion editor, I’ve evinced a boldness in print and shyness in person.

People wondered about the dichotomy, and I always said I hid behind the newspaper byline. I was largely invisible, save for my words and ideas. I could walk down the street without being accosted. (There were a few exceptions, none of them ugly. Once, comically, someone asked for my autograph.)

I often think I can call myself a writer, despite the pretentious ring to it. All I know is that when I say I’m a writer, I feel both a sense of pride and charlatanism. And always my stomach does a terrific backflip of crazy self-doubt.

“Before you can say you’re a writer and mean it,” Marcel says, “first you must believe you’re a writer.” I’m still working on it.

On language: quote of the day

“Rather than make one’s argument come alive, clichés do the reverse. They capture a morsel of thought, cover it in batter, and fry it into mush.” — Mark Abley in The Walrus

For good measure, here’s a rogue’s gallery of flagrant clichés. As language guru William Safire put it (with a sardonic wink): “Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”

Don’t cry over spilt milk; Selling like hotcakes; The rest is history; Every cloud has a silver lining; When it rains it pours; Don’t judge a book by its cover; Don’t beat around the bush; Don’t count your chickens before they hatch; It’s a dog eat dog world; To be honest; Basically; With all due respect; Giving it 110%. It is what it is; Paradigm shift; Walk the walk; Pushing the envelope; Thinking outside the box; The elephant in the room.

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