Late Novels of Philip Roth In The LOA
In 2005, the Library of America began publication of a comprehensive edition of the works of Philip Roth. Originally planned for seven volumes, the series expanded to nine, with the final two volumes published in February, 2013. It is unusual for the LOA to publish the works of a living author. In this complete, definitive LOA edition, there is much for readers to sort out. Some of Roth's books will be of lasting value, others less so. In many respects, Roth (b. 1931) himself is a character and a theme that runs through his large output. Other pervasive Roth themes include Jewishness and sexuality. Sometimes covered by satire, a love of the United States also runs deeply through Roth's work.
This volume, the eighth in the LOA series, includes three novels written between 2001 and 2007. The second and most famous of these three books, "The Plot against America" attracted a great deal of controversy upon its publication in 2004. Roth characterizes the book as a "Roth novel" because the protagonist is a young boy named none other than Philip Roth. The two surrounding novels, "The Dying Animal" (2001) and "Exit Ghost" (2007) are shorter and more focused on individuals. The primary character in the former novel is David Kapesh who features in other novels that Roth calls the "Kapesh" novels while the primary character in the latter book is Nathan Zukerman, also the protagonist of a series of Roth novels. Each of these three books has received many reviews on Amazon and elsewhere and each is the subject of diverging opinions. I will discuss each book briefly, beginning with the long novel.
Roth's "The Plot Against America" (2004) received the James Fennimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction and the Sidewise Award for alternate history. The book is historical fiction in that it describes life in the United States -- in particular life in a family and community. The book is "alternate history" in that it describes events that did not occur. The premise of the book is that Charles Lindbergh captured the Republican nomination for president in 1940, defeated President Roosevelt, and pursued a policy of isolation and appeasement that led to large outbreaks of anti--Semitism in the United States. This is a difficult book to understand, as reflected in my own unsatisfactory 2006 Amazon review. I reread the book after reading a new historical study by Lynne Olsen "These Angry Days" that covers the history described in Roth's novel.
The novel is told in the first person by an adult Philip Roth who recounts events that happened when he was a boy of 7-9 between 1940 and 1942. When Roth speaks on an intimate level, the book works. He describes the life of a struggling lower middle class family in Newark, New Jersey with a hardworking father, a homemaking mother, an older brother with artistic talent, and young Philip himself. The book also portrays the Newark Jewish community in its variety, with honest, hardworking Americans such as his family to gangsters and mobsters. When Lindberg becomes president, in the book's account, Roth captures the fear that grips Newark's Jews and the disintegration of family and communal life. In many places, the writing is sharp and convincing, with the protagonists and their community lovingly and realistically portrayed. Anti-Semitism was rife in the United States in the early 1940's. Roth quite properly emphasizes the Americanism and patriotism of his characters. Although the book works on a personal, intimate level, the political story of Lindbergh and a fascist America is bloated and overdone. The book is too counter-factual as a history to be convincing. I had this response upon my first reading of the book in 2006, and, seven years later, my rereading of Roth and reading of Lynn Olson's history reinforced this initial response. As a large counter-factual alternative history, I found the book unsuccessful. I also do not think it useful to read books such as this as a commentary on the United States' current political situation.
The two remaining books in this volume are short, less well known, but more satisfying. Although both are accessible, they are also subtle. With their emphasis on death and the waning of one's powers, both books might be considered as part of the "Nemesis" novels published in the final LOA volume of Roth Philip Roth: Nemeses: Everyman / Indignation / The Humbling / Nemesis (Library of America #237).
"The Dying Animal" (2001) shows Roth at his most sexual. David Kapesh, 70, recounts the story his affair with a young student, Consuelo, 24, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, together with other affairs. Kapesh, in a ranting, polemical voice, discusses at length what he sees as the prevailing tone of political correctness in the United States and its unfortunate impact on relationships between men and women. But Kapesh also lacks the ability to form a lasting emotional relationship with a woman, and he runs away from death and from his own mortality. The book has much to say about sex, death and loneliness, the fear of growing old, and the nature of commitment.
The final book in this volume "Exit Ghost" (2007) Exit Ghost offers an ambiguous tantalizing look at fiction and biography, as most readers find Philip Roth ever-present in his novels. The protagonist, Nathan Zukerman, 71, is leading a solitary life as prostate cancer has left him impotent. He becomes infatuated with a 20-something married woman, leading to a hopeless denouement. Zukerman becomes irate when he learns that a young writer is contemplating a biography of one of his literary heroes, a fictitious character named Lonoff, and threatening to expose some unflattering details of Lonoff's early life. The book seems to make a none--too--veiled warning about prying into the intimate life of an author in attempting to understand his writing. The book self-reflectively explores the nature of literature and of growing old.
The Library of America is doing a service by publishing this definitive, uniform edition of the works of Philip Roth. Readers will find much to enjoy and much to argue with in this brilliantly abrasive American writer.