(Manuscript page from Patrimony.)
A number of you have noted and commented upon the burst of attention to Philip Roth around these parts of late. It's explanation time.
It started back when Wyatt Mason, writing at his superb new blog Sentences, mused about how much of his backlist reviewers coming to Roth's new novel Indignation should know. As he told it, "With Roth, a reader familiar with only Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint will necessarily form a very different picture of the preoccupations, tendencies, and techniques of the author in question than will a reader intimate with The Counterlife and Operation Shylock (or, alternately, The Breast and “The Prague Orgy”—one can, with Roth, produce a baker’s dozen of such pairs)."
That got me thinking about my own reviewing habits. For my first review for the New York Times Book Review, James Wilcox's Hunk City, I read his eight prior novels. Afterwards, I found myself wondering about the use of my time and my mania for thoroughness (or my OCD, if you prefer). One the one hand, only one of the eight books is mentioned specifically in the review – Modern Baptists, to which Hunk City is a sequel. And in a review of typical length – let's say 500 to 800 words – there's no real way to deploy that kind of information (without looking like you're showing off). But it seemed to me not just worthwhile but essential to be steeped in his body of work – to understand his overarching aesthetic project, and to be clear on how seamlessly (or not) the new book fit into his oeuvre.
Consider, if you will, my very brief review of Peter Carey's His Illegal Self for the Dallas Morning News. In this case, I already knew all his novels, and that saved me when I found I didn't care for the new one – I could compare it to its predecessors, and at least sing their praises.
Around the same time of the Mason post, I was offered the opportunity to review Indignation for the Barnes & Noble Review, an outlet I especially enjoy reviewing for because I'm given a bit more space to work with. I'd been looking for a "summer reading project" to take me away from the usual obligatory pile of current releases, and, inspired by Mason, I decided to use the excuse of this assignment to make this The Summer of Roth.
My original plan was to read all of Roth; then I limited it to all the Roth I hadn't read yet. But I don't know that the deadline will permit such thoroughness. I am, however, working my way through as much Roth as I can get in this summer, focusing on the books I have not read – many of the early ones, especially: Letting Go, The Great American Novel, Our Gang, Letting Go – while revisiting a few of what I consider the indispensible titles: Sabbath's Theater, The Ghost Writer, American Pastoral and Portnoy's Complaint, for example.
So what's it all in aid of? My plan – though I have been known to scotch ambitious plans before, so the usual caveats apply – is to pull back the curtain on my thinking and methods as I prepare for this review. The majority of readers see only finished reviews but I want to show you what goes into a sausage – the things I notice, the patterns I detect, the strengths and weaknesses. And then, as I turn to Indignation and prepare my review, I will give you some specific glimpses into that process – the preparation, the contemplation and the composition. With any luck, the journey will be mildly illuminating and not completely banal, and there will be a decent review to show for it at the end of the tunnel. And we'll see how much or how little of this makes it into the final review.
And, to get us started, I will be giving away a pile of Roth this Friday, so make sure you come back.