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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013

The Writer as Rock Star?

New biography considers the impact of Philip Roth

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The condition of American fiction is fractious. On one side, we have a legacy of what best can be described as writers who experiment with the architecture, not making form more important than content but rather uniting the two such that narrative voice is both form and content. Then there are avant-garde novelists who alter the medium and the nature of story-telling altogether. And then we have writers who are less daring but more accessible, willing to experiment without losing sight of meaningful, linear content. Philip Roth would be found in this latter category. He just might define it.

It’s puzzling that no major critical work has been written on Roth’s canon before Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth, Unbound: A Writer and His Books (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which successfully considers his writings, life and cultural mythos and the impact he made on millions of avid readers.

Pierpont, a New Yorker staff writer, begins at the start of Roth’s career and continues through his decision to cease writing fiction last year. “Portnoy’s Complaint was one of the signal subversive acts of a subversive age,” she writes. The excitement surrounding its publication was so high that even before its appearance in 1969, Life magazine pronounced it “a major event in American culture.” Portnoy’s Complaint had more in common with rock concerts than literature and “spoke to the generation-wide rejection of long unquestioned and nonsensical rules.”  

The novel’s protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, the proverbial Jewish son, masturbates with obsession in the bathroom or whenever and wherever the desire to claim his “wang” as his own becomes the issue. Upsetting Jews and all those who sought some return to normality at the end of the ’60s, Portnoy’s Complaint hit a cultural nerve causing backlash from Jews, yes, but also for all those who wanted no deeply rooted, obsessive challenge to normality.

It is not doing Pierpont’s work justice by focusing on one book. Roth, Unbound explores all of his writings and manages to gain access to his inventive lifestyle without being more about the writer than what is written. It is a brilliant book and every author of repute deserves such a text—especially one whose work has entered popular culture, avoiding the intellectual pitfalls of counter-culture ingenuity where brilliance shines but not bright enough to change readership sensibility. There is a hip quality that sometimes gains popularity by virtue of its immanent fictional truth, and Roth, while not altering the shape of fiction, certainly changed the shape of things to come.