Philip Roth is one of the great writers of our time. At his best he mixes great rage with great craft, says Judith Flanders. So why has he written another disappointing novel?by Judith Flanders / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
In the last three years, Philip Roth has published three novels which, according to his publisher, form a “trilogy of postwar American lives.” In so far as they deal with three important postwar episodes and their fallouts, this seems a fair description. But can we really equate Vietnam (American Pastoral) and McCarthyism (I Married a Communist), with the inability of Clinton’s trousers to stay zipped (The Human Stain)? Should we even try?
Roth seems in no doubt. But then doubt has never been a Roth characteristic; he has always been enraged by stupidity, by dullness, by the foolishness which can create chaos. Up to now that rage has always been focused, and thus useful. American Pastoral is the story of the Swede, a good man whose life is destroyed by his daughter Merry, who joins an underground group and blows up a post office, killing a family doctor who is posting a letter. At this stage, three years ago, Roth was fairly calm (for him). Evil, he notes, is “ineradicable from human dealings”; his novel is an exploration of why and how it can climb out of its box.
In I Married a Communist Roth’s rage becomes all-encompassing. Ira, the protagonist, is a loud-mouthed bully of a socialist (and not so secretly, a communist). His wife, like him a radio actor, denounces him in a kiss-and-tell memoir which brings about his downfall. What she doesn’t know, and we find out only towards the end, is that as a young man Ira had killed a fellow-worker. He had found in communism a redemption, a way to control his anger and its subsequent violence.
Ira’s rage may be temporarily under control, but Roth’s is slipping loose from its moorings. The narrator suggests that “to me it seems likely that more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America in the decade after the war… than in any other period in our history.” Tellingly, that decade is when Roth was an adolescent, when ideals are highest and most intensely felt, and the disillusionment the world brings seems to be aimed specifically at oneself.
In The Human Stain anger has become a whirlwind which cannot be contained, destroying everything in its path-including the novel itself. Now it is not so much the protagonist who is angry, although the narrative certainly begins that way. Coleman Silk is a professor at a New England…