In anticipation of Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth I decided to tackle the only four of his (Roth’s) novels I still haven’t read: Letting Go, The Great American Novel, Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America—those latter two being swift meaty things with upsides and down-, written later in his career when he had a better grip on his craft.
But I cannot for the life of me get through The Great American Novel, his baseball book, written in the aftermath of Portnoy’s Complain and seeming to manifest some personal confusion about whether he was a Comic Novelist or just a Novelist Who Happens to Be Funny.
I really do wanna plow through the baseball book and through Letting Go, because I feel like it’ll set me up for a better grip on the bio once it gets here; but, at the same time, I think the days of forcing myself through unenjoyable books out of a completist impulse are over.
And thus Letting Go–which, apart from the foreboding specter of being Roth’s most amateur novel, is also his longest–will probably languish in my eBay cart forever.
There’s a feeling of defeat here but I’m wondering lately: if my eyes are continuously wandering away from the page, usually a minute or two after my focus has already drifted, there’s a good chance, at this pint in my reading life, that the blame resides less with my attention span than with it does with the author’s handling of the material. Either that, or there’s just an irreconcilable difference between my readerly temperament and the material.
Surely that happens.
But probably sometimes it is me. Like the critic Harold Bloom saying he tried to get through Blood Meridian four times, but couldn’t steel himself against the violence, until finally he forced himself through it and, upon doing so, determined it was like the greatest thing since As I Lay Dying—
although, shit, somebody said some shit to me about Harold Bloom recently that made me dizzy and nervous: I love Blood Meridian, I love most of Cormac McCarthy’s output, but this summer I went on a Joyce Carol Oates kick, reading a bunch of her short stories but focusing mostly on four volumes of her nonfiction, and I came upon her essay about McCarthy’s novels up to No Country for Old Men. In the essay she talks about all the major books at length and she points out, with like a gentle shrug, that although McCarthy achieves some remarkably poetic stuff on a sentence-by-sentence basis, his style is also kinda silly. Self-consciously manly or muscular, obsessed with hardware.
And I think it was something about the calm, thorough, “here’s what I like and here’s what I don’t like so much”ness of Oates’s argument that opened my eyes to some of McCarthy’s silliness and didn’t put me immediately on my guard to defend these books I love—and I continue to love them! I think that’s the permission I got from Oates’s essay. “There’s quality here and silliness–but you’re free to enjoy it.” Her analysis wasn’t freighted with judgment, I guess.
But. I’m mindful now of these remarks I’ve heard that Harold Bloom didn’t actually like Blood Meridian, that he only pretended to like it so that he could seduce McCarthy’s avid readership and thereby float his own literary star a little higher.
Not sure I believe that, but it’s destabilizing to consider.
Well it makes me realize, looking back, that so many of my values and impressions as a young reader were rooted in my impression that writers were being up-front with me. Bloom among them.
Which I’m not sure Roth is doing in Great American Novel.
That kinda literary talk is so vague, I know, the idea of an author being honest in their fiction, but there’s something about reading, for instance, the first paragraph of The Human Stain (another Roth book) or, for that matter, Operation Shylock, or The Plot Against America, that gives the immediate impression of an author with something urgent to tell you and “here look have a seat let’s get right to it.”
An urgency fueled by sincerity.
In those passages, the author sounds like a kid who’s just found a rock that means the world to him and he wants you to share the bench for a minute while he turns it over and talks.
Or maybe the rock is a baseball.
Either way. I’m hating this book and I don’t think I’ll finish it and, for once, I’m not blaming myself. Which I guess is a good thing to be reminded of on my way into the biography: even a great writer missteps