Monday, 20 October 2008


by Philip Roth

I struggled last year to swallow the premise of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach; the depiction of a time when sex was still something barely discussed, and that the events of the couple's honeymoon could have such devastating consequences. In this similarly slim novel Philip Roth is keen to depict a very specific time (and as the college President will ask later, 'Do you have any idea that you belong to a time at all?'). He was quoted himself recently, saying "This will come as a great shock to young people, but in 1951 you could make it through college unscathed by oral sex." I obviously went to the wrong college. What he also wants to show is 'the incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.' The very articulation of that and the important word there, comical, makes Roth's a far more successful book.

In the period during the Korean War we meet Marcus Messner, son of a kosher butcher and straight A student. His only wish is to do well not only to justify the expense of the education which has forced his mother back behind the counter to work once again with her husband but also of course to avoid the draft. It's difficult not to draw parallels with today when Roth describes the messy and costly war abroad and the very real fear of death for any young soldier going out there. The Communist forces with their bayonets and bugle calls are shown to be an army from a different age, and yet their deadly effectiveness is all to clear. There is another driving force at work however, 'At the heart of my ambition was the desire to be free of a strong, stolid father suddenly stricken with the uncontrollable fear for a grown-up son's well-being.' Marcus' father sees the potential for his son's ruin everywhere. When late home he assumes he is in a whorehouse or pool hall and his increasing hysteria pushes Marcus to attend a college hundreds of miles away in Ohio.

Here at Winesburg he eschews both the Jewish and secular fraternities, preferring to keep his head down and work hard. Because Roth reveals where Marcus is narrating his story from we know where all this is heading and can see how each decision he makes drives him closer and closer to his fate. Marcus himself picks up on his father's fatalism and '...despite the trammels of convention still rigidly holding sway on the campus of a middling little midwestern college in the years immediately after World War Two, I was determined to have intercourse before I died.' This comes after his meeting and first date with Olivia Hutton, who will send him into a tailspin after performing that act we have mentioned before. Marcus' confusion is where much of the humour comes from, something that even I, someone born after the sexual revolution, can understand.

In the quite brilliant American Pastoral, Philip Roth describes in vivid detail the manufacture of a pair of women's gloves. Never before had I considered how it was the done let alone the care, the detail and indeed the love that used to go into making a simple pair of gloves. Now, I think, I will never forget. In his latest novel the trade he spotlights is butchery, kosher butchery to be precise and with the same skill he shows the ritual efficiency of the shochet as he slaughters chickens with a quick flick of his knife. Roth contrasts this with the scar Marcus sees on Olivia's wrist, the result of her attempt to 'ritually slaughter herself' but there's something laboured about the comparison which stops it from quite hitting the mark. The rage with which Roth has written in many of his finest works is replaced here by the titular exasperation of a student in conflict with his male authority figures.

The writing is of course excellent throughout, the humour welcome and the period evoked with skill but it's very size makes it feel like a minor work, one which fails to quite match the ambition of earlier small books such as The Ghost Writer. Another short book is on its way (dealing with suicide) and in a recent interview with Robert McCrum, Roth explained his frustration, 'Starting a new book is hell. You just flail around until something happens. It's miraculous. It comes to you out of nothing and nowhere. That's the problem with writing short books. You finish them too quickly. And that's what's wonderful about a long book. So I've decided I've got to find a big project that will take me right through to the end. Finish the day before, and - exit ghost.' That's the book I want to read.


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