WHY P. ROTH IS NOT “NEW” and WHY THAT MAKES HIM GREAT

 

Photo0249

 

[in response to a conversation ELSEWHERE)

My response is a necessarily long-winded one. This cannot be a definitive collection of arguments, though, because the (my) clock works against that. The last time I wrote a serious c. 5,000-word essay (at Dan Green’s behest) it was about Nicholson Baker and that took me about a week (after which I was still picking out typos, and formatting problems, for days). This I can only work on for a few hours before I have to get to other things. Maybe I can come back to polish it, later. This will be full of typos and there are bound to be unfinished thoughts and blind alleys. But the gist of this will generate a few ideas worthy, at the very least, of your passionate rejection.

Questions Re: the competing values of “conventional” vs “experimental”, or “middlebrow” vs “high style”,  come up all the time, in Lit Chat:  brainier (and, often, younger) readers/writers get bored with everything “conventional” they were forced to read in school (and anything similar) and decide to “light out for the territory”  to discover and/or conquer the Frontier. The presumption being that A) space (and potential progress) are limitless, with the corollary that  B) there will always be a Frontier. But my private discovery is that neither is true. My private discovery is that we’ve been led astray (by that trickster-demon called Fashion). “Limitlessness” is an illusion that may or may not have a special appeal to the American psyche.

There are limits built into Lit’s capacity to answer to every Ambitious Sophomore’s compulsion to reinvent the wheel of Lit. These limits force the cold-bloodedly-objective Literary Scientist to bounce back, away, from the standard compulsion to develop outward (toward the Frontier) and go up, down or in instead. For example, if Kathy Acker’s heroic experiments hadn’t generally produced results that proved the strength of the Limits, would she have been forced to compensate by tossing her nude body into the discussion?

Can we agree that in Lit, Form is the container and the Content the container is designed to hold is the spooky stuff: the transmission, from brain (author) to brain (reader), of Experience, Real-plus-Imagined? (Even if we can’t agree on that I will chug forward as if we can). Form, at the general level:  Novel, Short story, Verse. Refining that and zooming in on the novel we have a variety of shapes, including, say, familiar options such as the Epistolary or the Present-Continuous Confessional or the Modernist Run-On (a la Bernhard). Dozens of familiar forms (even Henry James’ Anal-Discursive quasi-legalese structures) work perfectly well as Containers for the spooky Content. Going literal on the topic, one can paint the cup and twist it into all kinds of contortions and add lots of extraneous filigree and protuberances; as long as the cup is still a cup, it will carry the content. Smash the cup into little pieces and arrange these pieces in arresting patterns on the table, though, and what one has is a really cool aesthetic experiment from which one cannot drink.

FOR PERSONAL CONTEXT: ONE OF MY EXPERIMENTS

AND: one of my attempts at forging an INTEGRATED AVANT GARDE by playing with “ordinary language” to execute a “post modern” trick: interspersing a “murder mystery” in a “roman a clef”HERE

***

A couple of years back, in fact, on HtmlGIANT, I got into an argument with some questing young writers on the topic of Asemic Writing. Wikipedia says “The word asemic means “having no specific semantic content'”.  And a blog dedicated to the practise (a blog called ASEMIC, with confrontational directness) says: “Asemic writing seems to be a gigantic, unexplored territory.” Which is that fallacy again, the fallacy of Limitlessness, especially striking when Asemic Writing represents the very opposite (not “gigantic” but non-existent), in matters of Lit. Because “having no specific semantic content’ is the same as saying “having no Literary content”.  Because we love to fool ourselves; fooling ourselves is a Literary Activity of its own. The questing types who have “discovered a new territory” and planted a flag there (a flag of a country called ASEMIA?) remind me of Christopher Columbine erm I mean Columbus. ASEMIA, as it turns out, is not a New Literary Land but a little island off the coast of a fully-populated country called GRAPHIC DESIGN. In a hemisphere called VISUAL ARTS. The country called LITERATURE is not there but to the North.

So desperate for a taste of the New, for the Oedipally-Rebellious, for the Culturally Bespoke and Cool, we fool ourselves, as young women and men… we play these (fittingly) semantic head-games with ourselves to convince ourselves we’ve left all that Dusty Old Bullshit  behind. Vain conceit.

All to support my argument that the only Frontiers left in novel-writing (after Sterne went pretty much as far as one could go, and still “Transmit experience, Real + Imagined” in the middle of the 18th century, with Tristram Shandy, as you know… Sterne “killed it”, as they say in Funk and Jazz… he killed it and he sowed the soil with salt, which is one of the advantages of coming to the game not too long after a fundamental technology is created) are not “Out there” but closer, hidden, on the map of the territory we already know. Just as Americans ran out of literal Frontier pretty quickly, “exploration” of the continent is now a matter of Psycho-geography… a game of nooks and crannies and walking through walls or over roofs.

And that’s how Philip Roth does it. The Frontier is now topologically inverted.

But, let’s get back to Tristram Shandy for a moment. An old (virtual) friend of mine, a sensitive reader  (he put me onto the addictive genius of Stewart Lee) and greatly talented writer (I’ve known three, in my life), disses Roth’s work as “journalism”… meaning that Roth is pushing no boundaries but merely transcribing quotidian existence. This friend… let’s call him Wallace… wrote a brilliant novel using the avant  garde-ish technique of Detournement. Wikipedia says:

“A détournement (pronounced: [detuʁnəmɑ̃]French for “rerouting”, “hijacking”) is a technique developed in the 1950s by the Letterist International,[1] and later adapted by theSituationist International (SI),[2][3] that was defined in the SI’s inaugural 1958 journal as “[t]he integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.”[

To put it simply, my old friend’s use of Detournement involved lifting paragraphs and sentences from a couple dozen fairly-well-known works (by James Joyce, Bruno Schulz, et al) to reincorporate them in a Sci Fi novel with a ’30s feel: a thrilling little collage of barely-digested pastichelettes into a whole too variegated to feel like a pastiche but too sample-rich to feel continuous. His novel is a pleasurable read and very clever and feels sort of New.

As it happens, Unca Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, was already doing the same thing, in 1759, for more prosaic reasons than kicking against the edifice of the Conventional (there wasn’t yet enough of a mighty commercial bulwark of the Conventional, in “Western” Lit, to kick against, in 1759): he was sampling from choice sources to increase the depth of his production (like any hit-making rapper). Wikipedia (the patron saint of this essay) says that the first person to note Sterne’s Detournement of Bacon, Rabelais, Burton and others, wrote:

If [the reader’s] opinion of Sterne’s learning and originality be lessened by the perusal, he must, at least, admire the dexterity and the good taste with which he has incorporated in his work so many passages, written with very different views by their respective authors.

Which is exactly how I felt about my old friend’s novel and the 18th-century technique it uses to chart “new territory”! Old friend Wallace thinks little of Roth, but his novel, as fresh as it feels, only manages to achieve a fraction of the depth/power/resonance that Roth achieves in his best books. Which, to me, underscores the Limits of that particular experiment in planting a flag at the Frontier.

*This is not some Dale-Peck-ish call for a return to The Normal [I consider at least one of Peck’s, and Wood’s, targets, in their Normative Witch Hunt, to represent the Modern Anglophone Standard for what’s stylistically possible: Don Delillo] and I’m not arguing that Innovation or Creative Disregard for The Rules are pointless… I’m arguing that what often appears to be both are often, in fact,  either A) Traditional Tools Tarted Up or B) no improvement. Often but not always. But more often than not. I believe in the Idiosyncratic far more than I believe in the New. But, for example, do Thomas Bernhard’s idiosyncratic experiments in anti-paragraphination really yield copious fruits? Let’s be frank here.

Do they?

***

In my opinion, one of the great Unsung Experimental Journeys in Literary Technique of the post-Industrial West is called COMPRESSION [an unlikely master of Compression is the upper-middlebrow Aesthete Bruce Chatwin: his novels/essays are compellingly-fragile parings, not a word extra]. Compression, simply put, is about how much you can leave out of a text.  Great strides were made in the Narrative Sciences courtesy of a NOVEL vs MOVING PICTURES symbiosis. Whereas in the olde days, if you wanted to move a character from the wingbacked velveteen chair, in his study, to the Vicar’s study, on the other side of the village, you’d pretty much have to get the character dressed properly and show him opening and closing the study door, down the stairs, fetching the latchkey , out the front door and down the walk until the chapter ended … and the next chapter could begin with a scene in the Vicar’s study (or a different scene). Action and description both can usually be pared with positive results (I’ve always accused Nabokov of being an over-describer, and the example I like to trot out comes from Pnin, in which Vlad very unnecessarily describes a squirrel as having an “oval face”).

[when I polish this I’ll insert an example of Uncompressed Bronte or somesuch]

Moving Pictures were like that, initially, too: they’d have to show most of the connective steps in a transition between set-pieces. But soon they were dispensing with that (driven by an eye on the cost of filmstock, or by the audience’s potential boredom?) and cutting out all sorts of Extraneous Narrative Connective Tissue. The climax of this Narrative Compression Quest has to be Kubrick’s match-cut in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, where the man-monkey (who has a name, btw: Moonwatcher, or Moon Watcher) tosses a femur in the air and it becomes an orbital platform for nuclear weapons. 150,000 years worth of Compression. And LIT/FILM, I think, helped each other get there, practitioners of the one form often being fans/students of the other.

Roth is a master of Compression (which allows him to pile on the layers and convey LOTS more stuff in his Transmission of Experience, Real+ Imagined). Here’s his opening for SABBATH’S THEATER:

EITHER FORSWEAR fucking others or the affair is over. 

This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered in tears to her lover of sixty-four on the anniversary of an attachment that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness—and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret—for thirteen years. But now with hormonal infusions ebbing, with the prostate enlarging, with probably no more than another few years of semi-dependable potency still his—with perhaps not that much more life remaining—here at the approach of the end of everything, he was being charged, on pain of losing her, to turn himself inside out. 

She was Drenka Balich, the innkeepers popular partner in business and marriage, esteemed for the attention she showered on all her guests, for her warmhearted, mothering tenderness not only with visiting children and the old folks but with the local girls who cleaned the rooms and served the meals, and he was the forgotten puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, a short, heavyset, white-bearded man with unnerving green eyes and painfully arthritic fingers who, had he said yes to Jim Henson some thirty-odd years earlier, before Sesame Street started up, when Henson had taken him to lunch on the Upper East Side and asked him to join his clique of four or five people, could have been inside Big Bird all these years. Instead of Caroll Spinney, it would have been Sabbath who was the fellow inside Big Bird, Sabbath who had got himself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sabbath who had been to China with Bob Hope—or so his wife, Roseanna, delighted in reminding him back when she was still drinking herself to death for her two unchallengeable reasons: because of all that had not happened and because of all that had. But as Sabbath wouldn’t have been any happier inside Big Bird than he was inside Roseanna, he was not much bruised by the heckling. In 1989, when Sabbath had been publicly disgraced for the gross sexual harassment of a girl forty years his junior, Roseanna had had to be interned for a month in a psychiatric institution because of the alcoholic breakdown brought on by the humiliation of the scandal.

Three paragraphs, 375 words, which precapitulate the first half of the 451-page book. It’s all there, in vivid detail, each word nearly a set-piece. Roth is the hypnotist who explains exactly what he’s going to do to you (what he’s going to make you “see” and feel) and then does it. He gets you to swallow the novel in capsule form before you’re done with the first page and thereafter makes good on the sensations the capsule promised: but we miss the trick, we undervalue the technique, trained, by Fashion, to expect “bravura” in the form of bold orthography or weird (read: zero) paragraphination or Detournement, et al. But, surely, after the Experimentation one expects the Results, and many of the Results are in: some of the tricks work poorly (because they distract from the Content or become it, like the camera-work becoming the film ) and some work not at all (eg Asemic) and some just represent one tool in a tool kit that needs to be stocked with dozens (if not hundreds) of tools before the Writer can pull off the trick of Transmitting Experience, Real + Imagined.

It’s difficult to compare what Roth does, to what other writers do, if we don’t notice what he does. Taking a look at his openings, we find Roth prefers a very old trick, a pre-TV trick: the Narrator blithely violates that corny old Workshop Commandment against Telling rather than Showing. Here’s the second paragraph from I Married A Communist:

Along with the brawn and the conspicuous braininess, Mr. Ringold brought with him into the classroom a charge of visceral spontaneity that was a revelation to tamed, respectablized kids who were yet to comprehend that obeying a teacher’s rules of decorum had nothing to do with mental development. There was more importance than perhaps even he imagined in his winning predilection for heaving a blackboard eraser in your direction when the answer you gave didn’t hit the mark. Or maybe there wasn’t. Maybe Mr. Ringold knew very well that what boys like me needed to learn was not only how to express themselves with precision and acquire a more discerning response to words, but how to be rambunctious without being stupid, how not to be too well concealed or too well behaved, how to begin to release the masculine intensities from the institutional rectitude that intimidated the bright kids the most.

There’s an awful lot of Telling in that and one little dollop of Showing. There’s no way to Show “kids who were yet to comprehend that obeying a teacher’s rules of decorum had nothing to do with mental development”, for example, without writing a whole novel (encompassing Hollywood’s favorite narrative arc of self-discovery; that’s the script from To Sir, With Love, isn’t it?) on that sentence alone. Roth Tells a lot and studs the Telling with dollops of Showing and very cleverly sets up cascades of meaning/sensation while pretending to get to the utilitarian business at hand, the laying of the Plot Lines. The last sentence of that page-one paragraph is not only impeccably musical (making it astonishingly propulsive) but it is a neat little divagation through a corner of an extensive treatise on Liberal Philosophy of Post War America. Masculine Intensities? Being “too-well concealed” or “too-well behaved”? Institutional Rectitude? Sounds like we’re being pulled in a little wagon in a tightening hypnotist’s spiral around the psychic territory of the McCarthy Era… with Wagnerian overtones. Which is exactly what’s happening.

Roth and the seasoned campfire griot of antiquity, both, work manipulative subliminal magic to Transmit Experience, Real + Imagined. But where the griot makes convenient use of the shortcuts of physical gesture, facial expression, vocal tone and perhaps the living Rorschach of the campfire, Roth is forced to do it on the page: his magic is of a slightly higher sort (a forced evolution as populations grew geometrically and Gutenberg and Media took over?). He lowers your psychic guard (Disbelief) even before he Suspends it with the folkloric approach of the “simple” narrative voice. There’s nothing to cope with or decode or sort out as he Tells… he slips in with alarming penetrative (laugh; lanolined?) ease. Showing is problematic in comparison: Showing entails describing a picture; if the description of the picture takes longer than the action the picture displays, there is a proportional shortfall in “Sensation”, IMO, as Cognition grinds away. Writers like the reliably middlebrow (mid-period) Paul Theroux, for example, master Action in their Set Pieces to minimize the problems often inherent in Showing. Showing is the preserve, properly, of Film, is it not? Watching a second of action onscreen, one is subliminally aware of hundreds of descriptive details (the set-design) without wasting precious Suspended Disbelief Time digesting it all in a sequence. On the page, it has to come in a sequence. To the detriment of the goal of Transmission. For the Transmission to be flawless, certain Cognitive Gates have to be down. Consciously or not, Roth knows this and does his subliminal button-pushing to keep the conditions right.

Just to contrast: here’s an intro passage from the excellent Penelope Fitzgerald, from Offshore [the problem here and above being that I can’t block-quote without drenching it all in italics, which is unfair to Fitzgerald as well as Roth]:

‘ARE we to gather that Dreadnought is asking us all to do something dishonest?’ Richard asked.

Dreadnought nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.

‘Just as a means of making a sale. It seems the only way round my problem. If all present wouldn’t mind agreeing not to mention my main leak, or rather not to raise the question of my main leak, unless direct enquiries are made.’

‘Do you in point of fact want us to say that Dreadnought doesn’t leak?’ asked Richard patiently.

‘That would be putting it too strongly.’

All the meetings of the boat-owners, by a movement as natural as the tides themselves, took place on Richard’s converted Ton class minesweeper. Lord Jim, a felt reproof to amateurs, in speckless, always-renewed grey paint, over-shadowed the other craft and was nearly twice their tonnage, just as Richard, in his decent dark blue blazer, dominated the meeting itself. And yet he by no means wanted this responsibility. Living on Battersea Reach, overlooked by some very good houses, and under the surveillance of the Port of London Authority, entailed, surely, a certain standard of conduct. Richard would be one of the last men on earth or water to want to impose it. Yet someone must. Duty is what no-one else will do at the moment. Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.

Fitzgerald’s opening gambit is mostly Showing; it’s modern, cinematic. It’s intriguing, already funny, I’m dropped into the middle of a scene in a witty movie and I have to catch up, and my confusion drives me into the novel. The drawback of this method (the SHOW/FILM method) is that Cognition is grinding loudly as I process the scene: what are these people talking about? What is this book about? Is this going to be some kind of maritime caper? Something about insurance fraud? Smuggling? First comes Showing and then a little Telling but it doesn’t help to orient me. Fitzgerald has me so busy with receiving/collating Data that she isn’t Transmitting Experience, Real + Imagined, yet (I won’t even go into the matter of passive sentence constructions and all that)… but I can only attest to the fact that that’s how I feel about it. Aka: it’s just my opinion, but…

I once wrote a comparative book review of Philip Roth’s Everyman vs John Banville’s The Sea, in which I pointed out that Banville had picked, and stuck with, the wrong kind of Narrative POV (First Person) for the kind of Narrative (pseudo-memoir, reaching back 50 years) he was trying to deliver. Whereas Roth’s choice in the same department was ideal. A simple but fundamental matter. But that’s where most of the real action, in the ongoing Story of Aesthetics/ the Arts, is,  I think: on a level so fundamental we generally take it for granted. All the glamor/flash/fashion adheres to the surface stuff. The Spooky Machinery is by fathoms deeper.

At his best, Roth doesn’t re-invent the wheel and he doesn’t waste any time trying to. The real Frontiers in the practise are elsewhere.

PART TWO (if I ever get to it):

A) “Rude” as the proper Avant Garde and B) the possible source of certain Literary Fads and Fashions…

For now I give the last word to Mr Sterne, in an excerpt from a passage with rhythms I identify as the unrefined version of the rhythms of Mr Roth in full flight:

 

Chapter 2.XLV. (excerpt)

Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs? for we are got no farther yet than to the first landing, and there are fifteen more steps down to the bottom; and for aught I know, as my father and my uncle Toby are in a talking humour, there may be as many chapters as steps:–let that be as it will, Sir, I can no more help it than my destiny:–A sudden impulse comes across me–drop the curtain, Shandy–I drop it–Strike a line here across the paper, Tristram–I strike it–and hey for a new chapter.

The deuce of any other rule have I to govern myself by in this affair–and if I had one–as I do all things out of all rule–I would twist it and tear it to pieces, and throw it into the fire when I had done–Am I warm? I am, and the cause demands it–a pretty story! is a man to follow rules–or rules to follow him?

Now this, you must know, being my chapter upon chapters, which I promised to write before I went to sleep, I thought it meet to ease my conscience entirely before I laid down, by telling the world all I knew about the matter at once: Is not this ten times better than to set out dogmatically with a sententious parade of wisdom, and telling the world a story of a roasted horse–that chapters relieve the mind–that they assist–or impose upon the imagination–and that in a work of this dramatic cast they are as necessary as the shifting of scenes–with fifty other cold conceits, enough to extinguish the fire which roasted him?–O! but to understand this, which is a puff at the fire of Diana’s temple–you must read Longinus–read away- -if you are not a jot the wiser by reading him the first time over–never fear–read him again–Avicenna and Licetus read Aristotle’s metaphysicks forty times through a-piece, and never understood a single word.

 

 

ADDENDUM:

my comment from the comment thread, elsewhere (in 2014), that inspired this essay:

What I meant about Roth: A) “mainstream” was just a reference to his standing/success… because he certainly played as many post-mod games as anyone, with all those doubles and echoes and false branchings… the *stylistic* mainstream (of the era of Roth’s great achievements) would have been embodied by… Anne Rice’s stuff? Pat Conroy? B) the “can” is important in that “alloy” sentence; Patrimony’s sentimentality was as middlebrow as anything by Bellow (or Auster) … I guess the form (hagiography) requires that… but you don’t get much of that stuff again, out of Roth, until Roth himself ages into The Dying Animal, and after, when he becomes watery-eyed contemplating Death as a very-local phenom. But Patrimony and (say) Operation Shylock are very different books, issuing from different apertures in the chicken. So, yes, Roth *can* do middlebrow, but generally didn’t.

[sidebar: interesting comparison: Woody Allen’s filmography: spookily-similar sine wave… was Allen shadowing Roth?]

Roth’s achievement, IMO, is in the density of his imagination, and the relentlessness of invention, in that great run of books starting with c. Counterlife and Shylock and into Communist, Pastoral, Stain, Sabbath (I’m unfocused and patchy, now, because it’s actually been a few years since I took a peek at any of these other than Sabbath).

The first Zuckerman run was good but just no clue as to what would come, I feel. The little books after the great run were not dense, not relentlessly inventive, not driven by that super-sexual Life Force that gave Roth the courage to be so rude… and, for me, the “rudeness” was the element of the Avant Garde that kept his great books at the forefront of a shock wave of Inspiringly-Ugly Truth that American fiction cannot seem, still, to abide… no, even less so, now, than in the ’90s. That “rudeness” is as experimental as you can get… gimmicky tricks with typography/ linearity (et al) are tame, toothless, high-school-ish badges of “experimental” in comparison. Roth’s jokey riff on “stream of consciousness”, another “experimental” technique from the century before the century before this one, in the second half of Sabbath, is funny: because all literature is ONLY that, really, isn’t it? “Stream of consciousness” in the voice of that inner-stranger who’s been reading to you since, roughly, Kindergarten… no?

 

to which the commenter DEADGOD responded:

 

all artistic expertise is at least a little mysterious, but for something conventional(ish?) to challenge to degrees most self-conscious ‘experimenters’ can only admire (and envy) is, eh, unusually inexplicable.

I mean, by ‘conventional’, that Roth’s individual sentences aren’t strikingly difficult, his diction isn’t especially lapidary, and his architectural inventiveness isn’t enchanting, in my view. Not, say, Proust, not Nabokov, not Borges. Not ‘new’.

“Dense”: sure – I’d call, say, Operation Shylock even feverish. And “inventive”: as well as the meta – as you say, not by then experimental – , the conspiracy-theorizing in Shylock, which I took to be an angry joke on the paranoia regnant in ‘the Middle East’ (and, well, everywhere where injury, rather than achievement, is the source of privilege — cf. the target audience of goebbelsite Fox and the Wall St. Pravda, and the way identity toxins poison the notional Left).

I guess what’s interesting to me about seeing Roth in this way – a writer who makes great use of superficially unexceptional materials – is that I don’t get it. I don’t see — on mostly single readings of only a handful of his novels — what’s so good about his writing. As you’re just one of many careful readers who rate him so highly, I figure either the door hasn’t opened for me or, as happens, individual taste filters out what should pass through.

A writer I’d nominate as someone who writes in a superficially unexceptional way but whose writing is of the highest caliber would be Penelope Fitzgerald. There’s nothing glittering or remarkably clever or ostentatious at all about her sentences and stories, and yet the effect of her storytelling is as good as it gets.

 

To which I responded with the essay above

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