The Man Booker International Prize rightly honored author Philip Roth this month for his prolific and masterful body of work.
We should take a pause on this occasion, celebrate and note that Roth is not only one of the greatest writers, but is also the last of the triumvirate standing. Bernard Malamud departed first back in 1986. Then Saul Bellow passed in 2005. Along with Roth, they were, as Bellow mockingly referred to all three of them, “The Hart, Shaffner & Marx of literature” - as if, because they were all Jewish, they’d been clumped together in a haberdashery.
But since the birth of the new millennia, while Philip Roth has vigorously written at a textual tear, his most prolific by penning a series of short, powerfully compact books, the stories stored in them have all been obsessed with death.
Last year and with his 31st book Nemesis, about a terrifying polio outbreak that threatens wartime Newark, Roth took that grave subject beyond anything he’s done up until this point.
In 2001, he had David Kepesh, a seventy-year old professor and critic panicked about death and growing old.
By mid-decade in 2006, his short novel Everyman begins at the funeral of its protagonist, an old advertising executive. In Exit Ghost (2007), Roth writes his last book about his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman – in a sense finishing him (The Ghostwriter) off. Soon after, in Indignation (2008) he travels back in time to 1951 where we find out the narrator is dead and relaying his story from the beyond, which hauntingly revolves around his obsession with a female student, Olivia Hutton, who also happens to be a survivor of a suicide attempt. Then in 2009, he writes The Humbling about a leading stage actor who commits suicide with a shotgun.
Now at the age of 78, is Roth trying to tell us something?
It cannot be ignored that Roth, who has always been an author obsessed with identity, is a postmodern writer and one whose fiction mirrors and explores the relationship between the work and the writer who is writing the work.
While his Zuckerman books are about the travails of an author, he internalizes even further in others, such as Operation Shylock (1993), where he has as a doppelganger, the novelist Philip Roth who traveled to Israel to attend the trial of accused Nazi war criminal, John Demjanjuk, while an impersonator, going by the name Philip Roth hijacks his identity.
Commenting on his narrative style in Deception (1990) he observes, “I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction…let them decide what it is or isn’t.” Critics who’ve observed this Rothian hall of mirrors, have called his technique metafiction.
But if we are to follow his postmodern pathway of prose, where Roth’s message is typed within the pages of his medium, then we need to also ask…Will the eventual passing of Roth (that he seems to be foreshadowing if not, bellowing) signify a broader marker separating a generation? Are we at a seam in generations, where old media is dying along with old writers and new forms of media are the way by which new contemporary writers will write and be read?
Commenting in 2009, during an interview with Tina Brown of The Daily Beast, Roth considered the future of literature by stating his belief that within 25-years the reading of novels will be regarded as a "cultic" activity:
“I was being optimistic about 25-years really. I think it''s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range...
Likewise, his take on digital books as replacing printed copy, Roth opines:
The book can''t compete with the screen. It couldn''t compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn''t compete with the television screen, and it can''t compete with the computer screen...Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn''t measure up.
If we follow his Jeremiad, by sounding the death knell of both the medium of books and the messenger himself, Roth’s latest and perhaps most devastating piece of work since 1997’s American Pastoral, not only gave us a metaphor about the death of his protagonist – he penned us a plague.
If you’ve not read it, I urge you to do so. Nemesis revolves around a young playground director named Bucky Cantor during the war year of 1944 on the streets of the Jewish Weequahic section in Newark during a polio outbreak. Roth endears us to young Bucky by portraying his caring manner with children and the amazing sway he has over them, only to steal it all away with a ravaging scourge.
After Roth’s recent decade of self-destructive storylines presaging his own eventual demise, he has now gone beyond self-annihilation to a broader, wider obliteration of a whole population with Nemesis. Death doesn’t just seek out the elderly individual, but an entire landscape of the future – children.
Beyond his individual characters struggles and travails, Roth is known to confront the zeitgeist. As the last of the triumvirate standing, he is like Lear, railing against more than just old age. Is this same terrain also the literary landscape that’s becoming evermore incomprehensible due to an explosion of media options, with an unfathomable number of garbled, incoherent messages thundering their tweets and text but in the end, do not signify literature?
It is a strangely McLuhanesque paradigm that we’ve converged upon. Roth, a postmodern writer, who has used as his subject matter, an author like himself and has killed him several times over the past decade and right when technology seems to be closing the book on physical books, he now creates one that encompasses not just a single death, but a deadly pestilence.
One could say he’s been writing this same book all his life, for even in his short story “Epstein”contained in his first book Goodbye Columbus, Herbie, a young son, died of Polio at age eleven.
In The Ghost Writer, at one point Amy Bellette says to Nathan Zuckerman that Lonoff (whom she imagines talking to her from beyond the grave) told her, “Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of a literary era.”
Mr. Roth’s books may take on a different form in the future. One day they may become ephemeral bytes, transmitted from a cloud beyond. But it will always be his stories that will breathe life onto the page. They’ll keel us over with laughter and tear us apart with grief and somehow, he and writers like him, will be immortalized by living in all of us…forever.
Abe Novick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org