Philip Roth - Where to begin?

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I saw someone reading 'Portnoy's Complaint' on the train today, and remembered, "oh yeah, I wanted to read some Philip Roth books, but I don't know which ones are supposed to be the best".

Mike Dixn (Mike Dixon), Friday, 7 January 2005 18:41 (eighteen years ago) link

That one. Or Goodbye, Columbus

Ken L (Ken L), Friday, 7 January 2005 19:12 (eighteen years ago) link

With Roth (who is my absolute favorite novelist), I think it's more important where not to start: Letting Go, When She Was Good, The Breast, Our Gang, Great American Novel, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy, Deception, I Married a Communist, The Dying Animal. It may seem strange that I can claim to love an author while thinking that so many of his books ought to be skipped (at least at first). But Roth is one of those writer's who's great when he's good and sucks when he's bad. Ken's right that Goodbye Columbus & Portnoy's Complaint are two good places to start, but so are Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, The Counterlife, Patrimony, and The Ghost Writer. I envy your having not read him. I haven't been blown away by an author like I was by Roth for a few years...

David Elinsky (David Elinsky), Friday, 7 January 2005 19:50 (eighteen years ago) link

his new book "the plot against america." is also a great read!

Emilymv (Emilymv), Friday, 7 January 2005 20:03 (eighteen years ago) link

I wouldn't recommend that you start with Portnoy. I think the tone of it can be grating and might give you a false impression about te rest of his books. If it turns you off it might stop you form reading the other books.

Moti Bahat, Saturday, 8 January 2005 23:30 (eighteen years ago) link

The Breast is the best to start with. Kafkaesque in a Woody Woodpecker way.

anonymous poster, Sunday, 9 January 2005 03:36 (eighteen years ago) link

Goodbye, Columbus was his first book, a collection of short stories. Portnoy's Complaint was a blockbuster novel, a frequently hilarious, much read and discussed explicit modern day rake's progress, as told by one Alexander Portnoy. Roth has claimed that he and some others that came of age were "pioneers of the sexual revolution" and in a way he is right- if there had been no Portnoy's Complaint, there would be no American Pie.

At some point early on, Roth was taken to task by Irving Howe for misusing his talent and "betraying his obligation to the Jews," and the success-de-scandale of Portnoy made many feel the same. The meta-plot thickens. The protagonist of The Ghost Writer, Nathan Zuckmerman, was a fictionalized version of Roth, creator of ofPortnoy-proxy (Gilbert) Carnovsky, hero of a novel of the same name. Note the three-layers, or is it four, I can't count! Zuckerman has reappeared over and over in Roth's work, and to top it off, Roth has even named characters Phillip Roth ! (More than one in one novel?) In autobiography The Facts, Roth gives a suprisingly Mom,Apple Pie and Chevrolet account of his childhood, although he does recount the scarifying story of his first marriage, his first wife being the basis for the protagonist of his surprisingly successful "goy" novel, When She Was Good. In the last section of The Facts, Roth is taken to task, by none other than alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, for his whitewash of, well, the facts.

The hero of the The Breast is another Roth doppelganger, David Kepesh, protagonist of The Professor of Desire.

A very interesting portrait of Roth appears in Janet Hobhouse's excellent autobiographical novel The Furies, here he is called "Jack."

Ken L (Ken L), Sunday, 9 January 2005 05:48 (eighteen years ago) link

came of age in the 50s

Ken L (Ken L), Sunday, 9 January 2005 06:16 (eighteen years ago) link

Start with Portnoy's Complaint, or at least read it before you read the Zuckerman books.

Ray (Ray), Monday, 10 January 2005 09:13 (eighteen years ago) link

Portnoy's Complaint.

Puddin'Head Miller (PJ Miller), Monday, 10 January 2005 10:03 (eighteen years ago) link

one year passes...
are there any interviews online in which roth defends the end of the plot against america? deus ex machina!

mark p (Mark P), Monday, 20 February 2006 04:26 (seventeen years ago) link

The Radzetsky March!

kenchen, Monday, 20 February 2006 16:03 (seventeen years ago) link

(Just kidding.)

kenchen, Monday, 20 February 2006 16:03 (seventeen years ago) link

The Human Stain is a great gateway to older Roth, I think.

My own Roth experience was utterly skewed by Operation Shylock. I read it first - and came away thinking of Roth as an annoyingly dense postmodernist who expects you to be up on his interviews and biography before reading his books.

joseph cotten (joseph cotten), Tuesday, 21 February 2006 02:31 (seventeen years ago) link

five years pass...

Roth won the Booker Prize and a judge has withdrawn from the panel in protest.

Judge Callil said that "he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe".


And, is it just me or does Roth kind of sound like an ass when he says "I hope the prize will bring me to the attention of readers around the world who are not familiar with my work" ?

Romeo Jones, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 14:42 (twelve years ago) link

(Oh, and this is the "Booker International Prize," given for a body of work.)

Romeo Jones, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 14:45 (twelve years ago) link

Haha, literary beefs are the silliest. I was going to say 'funnest' but they normally lead to years of tedium iirc, starting in the Guardian this Saturday.

That's a reasonable response imo - it's either that or marvelling at gaining approval of one's peers. (thanks for the cheque' probably better than both though)

Ismael Klata, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 14:56 (twelve years ago) link

carmen callil otm

thomp, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 15:21 (twelve years ago) link

i somewhat agree, i often cant remember which of his books ive read and which i havent; tho i like most of them, so i guess im into smothering

johnny crunch, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 15:27 (twelve years ago) link

i like roth but calling nemesis a masterpiece, like that judge did, is reallllllly pushing it

just sayin, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 15:29 (twelve years ago) link

"he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book"

I'm sort of interpreting this as "he writes about American Jews too much".

Matt DC, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 15:47 (twelve years ago) link

think that's a bit unfair, matt - it's not entirely surprising that the founder of virago might have problems with philip roth without framing this as a 'jewish question'

Ward Fowler, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 15:57 (twelve years ago) link

well matt are you saying he doesn't

thomp, Wednesday, 18 May 2011 16:07 (twelve years ago) link

I'm sort of interpreting this as "he writes about American Jews too much".

woulda assumed it was the lusting-guy thing that was his heavy motif?, but maybe not

i think the 'bring me to the attention of other readers' thing is neat - sort of a 'the reason why this award is valuable is that it spreads awareness of literature' kinda thing

mailbox of snakes (schlump), Wednesday, 18 May 2011 16:31 (twelve years ago) link

Well, and he's won a zillion American prizes and hasn't won the Nobel, and whenever he talks in interviews he's talking about Camus (big point of reference for Nemesis) and the Russians, so if he wants to be read in the context of those, then this can help do that.

more horses after the main event (Eazy), Wednesday, 18 May 2011 21:03 (twelve years ago) link

six years pass...

This guy is unjustly reviled by people of my generation who haven't read him.

Treeship, Monday, 10 July 2017 18:15 (six years ago) link

Which is fine I guess. There are plenty of other authors to read. But the harshness of people's attitude toward him suprises me.

Treeship, Monday, 10 July 2017 18:22 (six years ago) link

it's generally not a great idea to "revile" writers you haven't read

(The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Monday, 10 July 2017 18:48 (six years ago) link

I love the Bech series

calstars, Monday, 10 July 2017 18:54 (six years ago) link

I love "American Pastoral"

Well bissogled trotters (Michael B), Monday, 10 July 2017 19:29 (six years ago) link

At his peak during the 1980s thru 1998.

the Rain Man of nationalism. (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 10 July 2017 19:44 (six years ago) link

American Pastoral is amazing I agree. It helped me understand what happened to my mom's family in the 60s and 70s and why my grandparents -- who were liberals -- blamed the counterculture and not the war.

Treeship, Monday, 10 July 2017 19:57 (six years ago) link

read Portnoy's, Pastoral, and Everyman. while i admired elements of each, ultimately not a fan. there's this overbearing woe-is-me-ism that i just do not connect with at all.

circa1916, Monday, 10 July 2017 20:03 (six years ago) link

Isn't the Bech series Updike? xp

Treeship, Monday, 10 July 2017 20:08 (six years ago) link

read Portnoy's, Pastoral, and Everyman. while i admired elements of each, ultimately not a fan. there's this overbearing woe-is-me-ism that i just do not connect with at all.

― circa1916, Monday, July 10, 2017

I always direct newcomers to The Ghost Writer, a lovely odd sliver of a book. The first few Zuckerman books are wonders. There is no woe-is-me in these books.

the Rain Man of nationalism. (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Monday, 10 July 2017 20:18 (six years ago) link

Millennial's sure hate Updike

Well bissogled trotters (Michael B), Monday, 10 July 2017 23:37 (six years ago) link

Shit, yes Bech is Updike of course.

Started Goodbye Columbus tonight

calstars, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 02:09 (six years ago) link

i forget if i mentioned it somewhere but i read roth unbound a few months back and it was reallly good, roth is fascinating

johnny crunch, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 02:16 (six years ago) link

treesh, is it women or men who unjustly revile him?

johnny crunch, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 02:21 (six years ago) link

Mostly women but some men. The perception is that he is self-obsessed and a misogynist. It's bad enough that I felt too self-conscious to buy a copy of the Human Stain today at my place of work (a bookstore).

Treeship, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 02:25 (six years ago) link

Nb still going to buy it tomorrow

Treeship, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 02:30 (six years ago) link

I love him and think he writes with compassion, humor and insight about Americans of the past few generations. I am deeply hostile to the idea that novels should embody some particular ideology.

Treeship, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 02:32 (six years ago) link

Read The Ghost Writer!

the Rain Man of nationalism. (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Tuesday, 11 July 2017 02:34 (six years ago) link

^^ha I just read The Ghost Writer & Zuckerman Unbound and enjoyed as much as the later, weightier Zuckermans. novella length & abrupt endings worked in their favor.

busy bee starski (m coleman), Tuesday, 11 July 2017 03:07 (six years ago) link

i haven't read it, but in the wiki to leaving a dolls house he does come off horribly tbh...lots of ppl cant separate the work from the man or his image obv

Subsequently, Roth sent Bloom a "fusillade" of faxes one evening demanding return of everything he had provided during their years together including $150 per hour for the "five or six hundred hours" he had spent going over scripts with her[3] and levying a fine of $62 billion for Bloom's failure to honour the pre-nuptial agreement.[5] Bloom also writes of Roth demanding the return of jewelry given as gifts during their relationship, however his priority seemed to be money. "Just send a cheque" he wrote. Roth concluded by offering to give Bloom the $104 per week that had been paid to the maid in New York, which he claimed was Bloom's "sole contribution to living costs that averaged between $80,000 and $100,000 per year."

johnny crunch, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 11:44 (six years ago) link

I feel like I'm a bad Jew but I've only read The Dying Animal. It seemed like parody of what to expect from a Roth novel: obnoxious but horny old man scores with beautiful-but-unknowable girl, misery ensues. I enjoyed it, but it was ridiculous.

I hear good things about "Married A Communist", anyone tried it?

Chuck_Tatum, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 16:20 (six years ago) link

I hear good things about "Married A Communist", anyone tried it?

I like those late '90s novels to varying degrees, but they were a new peak.

i haven't read it, but in the wiki to leaving a dolls house he does come off horribly tbh...lots of ppl cant separate the work from the man or his image obv

Considering that "Philip Roth" often met Nathan Zuckerman in his novels and was interviewed by Zuckerman for a memoir called The Facts I guess I don't blame him.

the Rain Man of nationalism. (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Tuesday, 11 July 2017 16:45 (six years ago) link

Zuckerman Unbound especially seemed uh nakedly autobiographical

I Married A Commie was one of that peak period's best imo, the red scare viewed through relationship of two brothers

busy bee starski (m coleman), Tuesday, 11 July 2017 17:00 (six years ago) link

'communist' is one of the handful ive not read, its also sposed to have considerable autobiographical stuff & shots @ bloom

johnny crunch, Tuesday, 11 July 2017 17:22 (six years ago) link

one month passes...

Read The Ghost Writer on recommendation of this thread, loved it - thanks.

Chuck_Tatum, Sunday, 13 August 2017 21:17 (six years ago) link

five months pass...

cool, David Simon is making a plot against America miniseries.

Josh in Chicago, Tuesday, 16 January 2018 14:14 (five years ago) link

plot against America is the least of his works id like to see adapted

johnny crunch, Wednesday, 17 January 2018 15:59 (five years ago) link

four months pass...

cross him off the annual nobel shortlist

mookieproof, Wednesday, 23 May 2018 03:36 (five years ago) link

PAA mini could be great if someone wrote a real ending

Simon H., Wednesday, 23 May 2018 03:39 (five years ago) link


johnny crunch, Wednesday, 23 May 2018 03:47 (five years ago) link

two years pass...

So it seems there is a recent bio.

The Ballad of Mel Cooley (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 21 February 2021 14:29 (two years ago) link

"Goodbye, Columbus" seems like a good one to start with -- it's the thing that launched his career so we know it works for readers who aren't already primed for Roth, and in my view it's a pretty good test for whether you'd like the rest of his 60s output (I guess it's not quite as broadly comic as some of the late 60s stuff like The Great American Novel but that's not what anybody means when they say Philip Roth)

Guayaquil (eephus!), Sunday, 21 February 2021 17:13 (two years ago) link

I'd read a Roth bio in a second. Also I never realized Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry is basically his version of Roth. One of his best, obviously.

flappy bird, Tuesday, 23 February 2021 19:45 (two years ago) link

The Ghost Writer.

So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Tuesday, 23 February 2021 19:59 (two years ago) link

Yeah, maybe.

The Ballad of Mel Cooley (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 23 February 2021 20:43 (two years ago) link

Can't remember if the first thing I read from him was an excerpt from that in The New Yorker. Probably not but close.

The Ballad of Mel Cooley (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 23 February 2021 20:44 (two years ago) link

the new bio is out in a month or so, tho prob there are review copies around or w/e

johnny crunch, Tuesday, 23 February 2021 21:06 (two years ago) link

The story about his first wife is so intense, might be worth it just for that.

The Ballad of Mel Cooley (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 23 February 2021 21:07 (two years ago) link

I'd recommend Everyman (2006) as a starting point, at least for late Roth (best Roth). It's in the same orbit as the America trilogy, really short, and SO much more bleak.

flappy bird, Wednesday, 24 February 2021 05:40 (two years ago) link

two months pass...

this is nice to picture

Another time Clarke [neighbor/friend] visited Roth's house, alone, knocking a long time on his door; finally, as she began to leave, he sprang out of the bushes and tackled her.

johnny crunch, Monday, 26 April 2021 21:58 (two years ago) link

two years pass...

Turturro! Hadn't heard anything about him in a long time, thanks/ Sabbaths Theater ge has a pretty good reputation, I think?
The only dramatization of Roth work I've seen is The Ghost Writer, with Mark Linn Baker as Zuckerman, on ye olde American Playhouse (somehow, the Age of Reagan was very hip for Public TV, at least first term).
I don't know why I didn't mention on WAYR last summer that this, the last Zuckerman novel (2007) has him coming back to NYC a few years after 9/11, trying to swap his boondocks home for the urban apartment of a hot young female writer, whose ex tries to hardsell the Zuck (one of them still has a prostate, dammit) on going in on a book about the long-dead, mostly forgotten Lonoff which will somehow be a success de scandale (Z. somehow knows that this young bull is the spawn of a bigtime Hollywood entertainment attorney and a very Alta California Egyptologist, with a my$tical view---b-but they're only mentioned in passing!) Youngblood's key link is the fabled Amy Bellette, still carrying a torch for Lonoff, but also a brain tumor.
Here's what I did say:

Finished Exit Ghost, which was good enough to be frustrating: I would be following Zuckerman,back and forth, tolerant of his handheld camera/baseball catcher's mask (there's usually a sense of a grid, of wires in the view, but ok; he turns the camera on himself, effectively enough at times), then one of the other characters would get into close-range deposition, spilling their guts in response to his nosy questions---he's the great novelist Zuckerman, and he wants to know! Speaking of xpost rattling machinery: some of this seems good, but there's so much of it---and this is the "real" talk, interspersed with Z.'s increasingly long-ass compulsive fantasy scripting of dialogue with the fabulous WASP literary aspirant, from the loveliest old oil money neighborhood in Houston, which Roth seems to know something about, along with a lot of other things that could have come across a lot better in third-person narration, with characters not having to explain themselves to Zuckerman, which also tends to make good scenes go on too long, as the yadda-yadda format becomes distracting.

(Also he sticks in this long okay but uncompelling thing about George Plimpton, who may have died while the book was being written, as happens in the book.)(This while some other promising material is left to become merely anecdotal, although pretty good for that.)

I found Nemesis, which I think is all third person, and looks like there aren't any writers in it, as far as I've skimmed. Will also check Everyman; thanks again for the tip


dow, Saturday, 28 October 2023 01:07 (one month ago) link

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