Review of The Breast by Philip Roth

A plot worthy of Woody Allen initially turned me off, but I’m reevaluating my impression toward Roth, and this was short enough to read in one sitting.

Pristine prose stylings are why I read this author. Not always polished to a high gleam, not Nabokov, but well-rhythmed, easy to read, often intelligent in scope and content. That’s Roth in a nutshell. When he is in good form.

I can say I was surprised by this one. It ponders tried and true questions: Hypochondria, old age, shame, fear, the neuroses of modern men – all trademark Roth. He makes use of extreme intimacy, as usual, to gain the reader’s trust. A skillful manipulator of language, his stock libidinous narrator is back, giving us a skewed look at the trials of marriage, attraction, and deception, the cruelty of fate, the slippery slope of self-medication, the persistence of psychological wounds, all familiar territory, but displaying much compassion for the human condition. The introduction of the absurdist concept is the primary thrust into a debate of these topics in the form of a relentless interior monologue. He never slides into pure surrealism, but the book calls for strong powers of suspension of disbelief. You will be glad to know the author retains his formal approach to storytelling, and rewards the attentive reader.

Bitterness, dry wit, and morbid humor pervade the whole, and sophisticated, clinical descriptions create vivid, nauseating mental images throughout, while the sheer ridiculousness, and the Freudian fixations can be wearying, it’s nonetheless brutally compact, verging on inane only to blossom into a meaningful meditation on the fear of mortality – “The will to live.” A vivid evocation of desperation, helplessness, being trapped in a physical body which eternally fails to live up to expectations, and becomes, over time, a prison – such are the trappings of this brief, and seemingly out-of-place publication.

Contemplating the triviality of life, the narrator confronts the meaninglessness during the ad hoc recovery process resultant from his dreamlike predicament. Learning to live with oneself, one’s shape or condition, and facing hideous reality becomes the central proponent and ultimately won my esteem.

It asks, how much can one man take? Roth has mastered a well-constructed sentence and a balanced prose voice. This is no exception. His novels are examinations of the human emotion, strained and entering trial, but taking small comfort in daily interactions, and usually, bodily functions.

With The Breast, he manages to convey an engrossing inner conflict, shows that, as in Gogol’s and Kafka’s stories of metamorphoses, human nature is not altered by bodily transformation. Objectification, taboos, self-loathing, and some apt observations and well-pulled-off sentences round out the reading experience. No matter how off the rails Roth gets, he always has something striking to say about our plight as human beings.

As the narrator says:

‘This is not tragedy any more than it is farce. It is only life, and I am only human.”

Review of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

Should Roth’s novels be lumped together with other transgressive works such as Vollmann’s Royal Family or anything by the Marquise de Sade? Most often they are not.

Frequently, they are labeled as masterpieces, or literary fiction of the award-winning variety. Whereas, Vollmann’s far superior novel abovementioned is regarded by some as an eccentric display of scarcely fictionalized, dirty journalism.

Simply stated, about 80% of the content of this novel could be labeled as transgressive. A preoccupation with sexual mores, scatological humor, and phallocentric obsessive-compulsive mania are other descriptive terms I would use. But they are also reductive. It has been hailed as a comic epic. Comic, it is, at times, though also overwhelmingly pessimistic, sad, and impolite in the way desensitized five-year-old boys are impolite. Epic in the sense that Harold and Kumar is epic, if you are in the right mindset.

Roth excels at depicting the resonating effects of grief, betrayal and lust in many instances, but when combined with psychological transparency and fringe narrators with few, if any, redeeming qualities, it becomes necessary to define the novel by other means, lest it be consigned to the merely literal erotica section of the bookstore. Instead, let us consider how this novel, regardless of any other work he might have produced, constitutes a worthy achievement in the realm of satire, representation and the analysis of human beings.

The mental and societal situations alluded to include: madness, sexual frenzy, cartoonish seduction sequences, moving intimacy, grossly inappropriate discussions in the workplace, suggestion of far deeper corruption and crime, grief (of course), incestuous considerations, the pluses and minuses of marriage, the responsibility between lovers, spouses and professors toward those they violate, the purpose and power of art, and more. Overall, the main character represents, in my mind, a product of wish fulfilment, accomplishing in reality what could normally (and so often) only occur in the modern indelicate imagination.

Through a range of literary techniques Roth presents conflicts of varying depth and complexity, but never strays far from his central theme of the satisfaction of desires. Many farcical aspects intrude upon the serious tone it often assumes. Has anyone ever made money performing with finger puppets? Also, the ghost was an interesting way to conduct discussions and deliver character development. The dialogue can be witty, but it verges on shallow when entrenched in the single-track minds of the main characters.

I could go on extolling the great and execrable components of this multifaceted work, but I do not believe it is worth more than a modicum of my time. On to the next Roth book, to see what he can cook up with the same old ingredients.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth

ISBN 0547239696 (ISBN13: 9780547239699)

Upon rereading, I found this book more engrossing than before. Upgraded rating from 3 to 4.

Why? I liked the strong emotional core. There is usually an influx of emotion and logic in Roth’s books. In this one, the emotional fragility of characters is pronounced. The fragility of strained relationships is par for the course for literary fiction of all stripes and this is not the first time I’ve seen the washed-up actor character trope used, but it it fits in well with Roth’s preoccupation with older men sleeping with younger women. It’s got all the grab-bag elements from his oeuvre: sickness, lack of mental stability, people going through the motions, losing the edge, losing the battle against aging, society’s expectations being too high, succumbing to sensual obsessions, art, drama, and a touch of dread.

Our main character, Axler gets locked in his role as an old American male, and is yet unable to act, which had been his calling. Could this be a comment on Roth’s writing and reputation, since this book was written when the author was in his seventies? The difference between living a life and playing a role is not always well-defined.

You have in here the quintessential fears of life: man’s ultimate ineptitude, the ineffectual therapies which are presented to us as ultimate options, and more. Roth can be dramatically persuasive at times. We are reminded how easy it is to slip into self-delusion, and that this is all part of staging the grand performance of “your life.”

Accomplishment and failure, how these define us. Regret and pride. Dignity, or the lack thereof. The precariousness of any of life’s or relationship’s perceived stability. How controllable is one’s trajectory? The marriage of a man to his work, the ups and downs, and the artist’s responsibility to reinvent himself. How the fear of failure in anything can be paralyzing, and persistent denial can get us through tough times, but only provides a temporary reprieve.

Parts of the book resemble a stage play, and the setting is minimal. Also discussed are the politics of maintaining a front, the responsibility of parents toward grown children, confidence, liberty, how easily doubt creeps in and undermines the enactment of a life, the little messes in which we wallow, the twisted relationships that cross our path, and the pursuit of happiness and how it differs from the pursuit of pleasure. Spiraling self-sabotage and of course, the inevitable end. Should we change or compromise ourselves to please the person we love? Good old mortality rears his head at every juncture. It teaches us how to properly disregard the advice of others. The author posits that love requires living in the moment. All relationships carry the risk of pain if they are worth anything. Lastly, gratuitous sex. Or just enough for Philip Roth devotees.