Roth's latest bravura work reinforces his status as American master, but it also exposes his long-standing predisposition for improvisation over planningby Erik Tarloff / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
It is not clear when precisely it happened, but at some point while our backs were turned Philip Roth seems to have metamorphosed from enfant terrible into old master. This one-time Peck’s bad boy of American letters, who first made a name for himself with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 when he was still in his mid-twenties, has become one of only three living writers whose oeuvre is being published in a canonical, multi-volume Library of America edition (the other two being Saul Bellow and John Updike). He enjoys the enviably unassailable reputation that sustains a writer through good books and bad.
Over the years, God knows, he has produced both. But he is never less than a novelist of stupendous vitality and invention, and for sheer variety of literary ambition he may be without contemporary peer. Beginning as a quasi-disciple of Saul Bellow, he has subsequently tipped his hat towards influences as diverse as Franz Kafka, Ring Lardner, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges and Lenny Bruce. The results are always unmistakably Rothian, but the man commands a repertory company not merely of fictional characters but of authorial identities.
In his long career (almost 30 books to date), there have been two major turning points, moments when he evolved from one kind of novelist into another. After achieving a measure of mainstream prominence by minding his literary manners and writing three accomplished novels and a number of short stories in a conventional style, he found himself emboldened (or perhaps compelled) to give free rein to a private, obscene, combustible bravura previously shared only in conversation with friends. The result was that boisterous yawp of a novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.
It is impossible for anyone other than Roth to gauge the effort the book may have required him to write, or the courage to publish. But it was, I would hazard, a liberating experience all the same, one in which rage and exhilaration were inextricable: a deliberate, zestful poke in the eye to those critics, colleagues, friends and family members who thought they had him safely pegged. I would go even further – since the theme recurs in several of his fictions – and venture that he was enacting on a literary level a mode of almost adolescent rebellion that he had certainly gone through in his own life: a bright, well-behaved, parent-pleasing bar mitzvah boy had come face to face with…