Ron Rosenbaum's rather breathless essay about reading Philip Roth's upcoming novel, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, in this week's New York Observer interests me on several levels. The Kobe Bryant comparison doesn't seem to hold water since in the end, the game-winning shot from Game 2 turned out to be moot point, but aside from that, Rosenbaum's analysis does make me want to read the book, eventually.
I have an uneasy relationship with Roth's work, in that I've long felt that he is someone I should revisit at some point. It stemmed from my senior-year high school project. When all the other kids presented compare/contrast essays about fairy tales, I chose Philip Roth, because I was that kind of girl. Or more to the point, I was a product of my religious background and was curious as all hell about Portnoy's Complaint, which I assumed would be off-putting, ranting smut.
Well, as seen from the prism of a sixteen-year-old with limited experience, my self-fulfilling prophecy came true. Alexander Portnoy is not an endearing character, not someone I really wanted to spend a lot of time with. I gloried in his comeuppance, and proceeded to read a number of Roth's early and more recent books to look for ways to criticize his subject matter. As much as PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT bothered me, along came OPERATION SHYLOCK, which I read with equal parts repulsion, revulsion, and fascination. At the time, it just seemed like a ridiculous exercise in narcissism. Philip Roth pretending to be Philip Roth? Why on earth is this a useful literary device? Although I "got" satire at the time, I think much of whatever was contained in the book sailed by me as I concentrated on perceived misanthropy against other Jews. SABBATH'S THEATER seemed to me like a decadent exercise, a way for an old man to co-opt the ways of the young and pervert them. Never mind that the whole phone sex scene in subtitles was rather gratuitous.
So ultimately, I basically ripped him a new one and quite enjoyed the process (even as my classmates stared at me at the conclusion of my presentation in various states of confusion, shock, and "WTF?") But as the years passed, I wondered at my folly, perceived or otherwise. Even at the time I knew Roth wrote well, but either did not have the skills or the life experience to really comprehend his methods and style. Not to say that I do now, but I'd like to think I've grown up a little bit in the last few years, that I've accrued at least some experience to "get" him, or at least make a serious attempt to.
Normally, if I dislike an author's oeuvre, that's it--life's too short, too little time, whatever excuse is necessary to avoid reading further. But with regards to Roth, I think age and timing had a lot to do with my original (and mostly instinctive) opinion. For all I know, my next attempt will yield the same response, but if so, hopefully it will be better informed and better defended. It'll be interesting to find out.