September 28, 2007


Steven Augustine

Wouldn't it be useful if someone who set out to critique a novel "professionally" actually knew *something* of how a novel works?

When Carlin Romano writes, "If you read the new book, note how many times we're told in He and She that Jamie laughed at a Zuckerman comment. Ask yourself if someone in her situation would," it's awfully clear he isn't grasping the fact that Roth is showing a master's lack of authorial vanity in allowing the Zuckerman character, who so many think of as a not-even-thinly-veiled Roth, to make a fool of himself.

Roth could conform to current fashion and render his "alter ego" a flawed-but-lovable paragon (à la that other Nate, from Auster's "The Brooklyn Follies", wisely shrugging off his crush on an inappropriately young beauty in exchange for something with the young beauty's mother; how terribly correct)...but Roth's an *Artist*, not a simpering nurse to the wounded reader.

The embarrassingly flirtatious bits in the He/She passages in "Exit" are Zuckerman *fantasizing*, that's obvious; Roth shows us an old man behave foolishly (while showing us, also, a young man behaving despicably)...is there something preposterous in either case that I'm missing?

Having said all that, I'd be the last to trumpet "Exit Ghost" as a masterpiece; the first to admit it's a disappointment; the first to wonder, also, if Roth isn't a little bored with Zuckerman, since the book seems to be missing a whole layer of complications (and 100 pages or so). Why even mention, in Act One, for example, that loaded rifle...?

More disappointing is how Roth lets coincidence connect Zuck to the malevolent (or malevolently hollow) center of the action, Kliman, whereas with Alvin Pepler (the delightful nemesis from "Zuckerman Unbound"), the comedy and menace flow from the fact that the connection is *willed*; Pepler has a plan, and the plan means something. With Kliman, the animus Zuck is exposed to is just an (astronomically unlikely) accident. None of Nabokov's beautifully orchestrated McFate there; nothing but Zuckerman's secular old rotten luck.

Still, Philip Roth is *Philip Roth*. The man is not an Artistic mediocrity, charlatan or fool; we're not all just *imagining* his stature as a novelist. Romano's fatuously superior takedown is either the work of a dim bulb or a skimmer (slow down; read carefully; try to articulate what you *understand* of the book, rather than what you dislike in the writer), and I'm still not sure which is worse.

Jonathan Cohen

As familiar as I am with Romano's pompous natterings from the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, I can calmly assert that he could not be a greater Philistine if he sacrificed daily to Dagon.

steve mitchelmore

Mark, from looking at the cover, "Exit Ghost" doesn't have a comma in the title. Are you perhaps unconsciously seeking a companion for a forthcoming novel with a two-word title that does?


Wow - that's funny, Steve. Good catch. No doubt I am unduly attached to commas these days. Fixing it.

Martha Southgate

Genius he may be, but I think it's really weird how male critics (fans or not) rarely if ever, acknowledge Roth's profound misogyny. Yeah, he can write. He's a genius with the prose. I get that. But as a woman, it doesn't make the misogyny any less troubling. Perhaps that's what Romano was clumsily trying to get at.

Steven Augustine

Roth is *not* a "misogynist". He writes from a "male" perspective (this is his stated purview), but please name a male paragon...a penis-bearing character who gets off (no pun intended), in his books, without being exposed as a ninny/bastard/psycho/schlub. He's no more a "misogynist" than Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor or Gertrude Stein are "man-haters" (or misogynists, for that matter).

I don't want to come off all school-marmishly tetchy here but I think this is an important issue, an issue that tracks to the heart of how we so often read/misread texts now. As popular writers go ever "softer", the writers who remain "hard" look increasingly like nasty old goats, I think: Mark's linking of the Bukiet "Wonderbread" essay is *so* apt, here.

We throw the term "misogynist" around too freely. A writer who presents a narrative in which a character expresses sex-obsessed, or even negative, thoughts about a particular female character, is not his/herself a misogynist by default, and neither is the character (though the character may well be). Roth's characters are not, traditionally, cheerleaders for the human race; one of the nastiest (and richest, incidentally) would be Mick Sabbath. Sabbath is bitter/angry/dismissive towards men and women *both*; quote a single passage where he singles out "woman" (the *population*) for his genuine disgust/hatred.

Where's the "misogyny"? Is he a "misogynist" because he's obsessed with sex? Would he be free of the "misogynist" label if the sex he were obsessed with were homosexual? Are there no aged male humans who are obsessed with sex? Is this not a worthy/illuminating (if, to some, depressing) subject?

Is "Zuckerman" a selfish creep who sees all women as doormats, mommies, muses or whores? Very possibly. Roth is not, by presenting this character with all of his terribly average character flaws, lionizing the flaws; he's telling a story about life on earth, and it's not a lullaby. Tales of misogyny are not misogynist *per se*.

Roth is too often charged with this crime; there is rarely (if ever) textual proof. This is an impressionistic old trope, driven by emotions and "verified" by popular repetition.

Sincerely: Martha: where is the specific textual proof?

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."