Philip Roth: A Real American Asshole

I’m an artist, man. I don’t really know what kind of art I do, but I know I’m totally an artist. That means I’m qualified to decide whether something is or isn’t art, and whether something that is art is good or bad art. In fact, I’m more qualified than the average art or literature critic to make such a call because I claim to be an artist, whereas most of them would not. At a minimum, I can make weighty pronouncements on literature, because I read a lot of it, I often consider quitting school to become a bartender and start writing it, and I think about it a lot.

It so happened that I was living in Shanghai and that I had run out of books to read and was sick of watching Chinese historical soap operas, so I went to the Foreign Language Bookstore on Fuzhou Lu to load up. I’m pretty sure, now that I think back on it, that some old-school party cadre with a rudimentary understanding of English owns and operates that store, because every book they had in English was either written by a Russian author or centered on how unfulfilling and corrupt life in western capitalist democracies is/was. I mean, I got cheap copies of The Brothers Karamazov and Das Kapital, which was cool, but the rest of the books were pretty depressing (not that I don’t like them): The Age of Innocence, Babbit, The Jungle, The Great Gatsby, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and any number of books by Charles Dickens. I should have known not to buy anything in the contemporary fiction section, but I did it anyway and went home with a copy of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, remembering that, if I was going to be a pretentious urban liberal intellectual, I had to get down with that guy’s work. I mean, where is there a list of 100 Books You Must Read if You Want to Be A Pretentious Urban Liberal Intellectual that doesn’t include at least one by Philip Roth?

I don’t think I know anyone who’s read The Human Stain, and now I know why. If you plan to read this rubbish, skip to the next paragraph, because I’m going to give the plot away right now. The story is that some old Classics professor named something-or-other Silk who teaches at a liberal arts college is having a rough time of it because, although no one can tell, he’s black. He’s been pretending all his life that he’s Jewish (“passing”), and the novel tells the story of how he “comes out” as a black man to his children and the world, which he is prompted to do once he is accused of racism by two black students. In the meantime, this dude carries on an affair with the much younger Fawn, a female janitor who just “likes to fuck” and otherwise wants to “live a simple existence” who Roth presents as the pinnacle of desirable (to men) stupidity. She’s developed these defining personality characteristics, apparently, because she’s been the victim of abuse at the hands of her previous lovers. This would be a great deal for Silk but for the fact that some uppity broad who is also a professor at the school passes a communique around the university positing that his cavorting with Fawn amounts to abuse. This woman, of course, turns out to have been in love with Silk all along, despite her public contention that he’s a chauvinistic asshole. I’ll have something to say about all this shortly, not to worry.

The book completely sucked, but I decided to give Roth a second chance. I have a generalization that I hold dear that says that most authors’ second book is their best one. The first one is usually kind of a mess, but the second one is where talent really shows itself after the author has had a chance to work out the kinks involved in writing a long piece. Most of the time succeeding books are either tired variations on the second one, or they make it obvious that the writer spent up all of her/his ideas on that second book. Either that or the author tends to get experimental and usually fails at whatever she/he intended to do. I know that there are exceptions, but I think I’m usually right. So, I figured I’d give it another go. I mean, maybe Roth was intentionally portraying Silk as a complete dick and is really just a terribly talented illustrator of character.

So, when I was thinking about what to read last winter break, I decided to add his most acclaimed (though not his second) book, Portnoy’s Complaint, to the list. In this one, the title character, Alexander Portnoy, relays his experiences as a child, an adolescent, and a young dude to his psychiatrist, and does so in excruciating (-ly awful) detail. He discusses his weird sexual thoughts about his mother, his perceptions of his father’s penis, his obsession with wanking, his propensity for sexually assaulting women (in one passage, he jacks off on a bus and considers ejaculating onto the arm of a sleeping girl next to him), and his unabashed and unexamined lack of concern for his sex partners’ humanity. He spends a good portion of the book explaining his relationship with a woman he calls The Monkey (because she once ate a banana while watching people fuck or some such nonsense) and relating sundry details of the sex acts he has pressured her into performing, including a threesome with a prostitute. The entire book could have been written in one sentence: “Doctor, I, Alexander Portnoy, consider women to be an alien species and to be intellectually and morally inferior to me, but I want to fuck them and I expect them to rescue me from my extreme narcissism and self-loathing, so I sexually abuse them and then make them responsible for my lack of emotional maturity.”

Alright. Where do I start?  Roth has been given countless awards by all of the pipe smokers who decide what literature is and should be, he’s been praised like Jenna Jameson at a UFC match for giving us some kind of glimpse into the mind of the old northeastern Jewish male, and he is supposed to be some type of literary genius who has the ability to illustrate for us the foolishness of our ways and offer us insights into our national and cultural character. Portnoy’s Complaint is on every top-100-books-of-all-time list in the world. It’s really, according to the tweed hat posse, a work of fucking art.

I don’t quite see it the same way they do. Like I said, after reading The Human Stain, I thought Roth might just be a really insightful motherfucker who was capable of lucidly illustrating the character of a really despicable person, but Portnoy’s Complaint proved me wrong. Roth isn’t actually able to portray anyone’s character except his own, and his lack of ability in this arena ought to shove him right off those top 100 lists (if the aim of the vainglorious tossers who write them is really to compile a list of 100 books written by people with real insight into the human condition). This guy is quite simply the most arrogant and narcissistic writer of the century, and he is utterly incapable of even the most rudimentary forms of empathy and understanding that give a good writer the ability to capture human experience and emotion. I’ll explain.

The Human Stain is nothing but a hysterical, angsty screed disguised as fiction written by an arrogant and self-absorbed old man fearful of the prospect of women and non-whites usurping the position in society that he (mistakenly) feels entitled to. Reviewers have said that he wrote it to voice his opinion on the state of identity politics in the 90s. I can agree with the fact that things got a little silly on that front at times, but I don’t buy that this book was some genius illustration of the follies of the age. I mean, Silk gets accused of racism and turns out to actually be a black guy passing? Come on. What’s the message there? That people who accuse other people of racism are stupid because the people they are accusing might also not be white? That someone who manages to escape the one-drop rule is incapable of being racist? OK, dude. As for the female professor, how likely is it that a college professor would send notes around a school complaining about the private life of another professor? In painting this character as a busy-body, Roth is sinking into really lame and patently false stereotypes about feminists. And the fact that she is supposedly secretly in love with him? Jesus Christ. Even the purportedly sympathetic female character, Fawn, is a caricature rather than a rounded character with complicated human motives. She’s an old asshole’s fantasy, a stupid, cowed younger woman who likes to fuck and doesn’t expect anything beyond that. Not affection, not respect, not love, nothing. Disgusting. The fact is, Silk is Roth: an aging, ego-centric academic who is much more impressed with his own intellect than he has any right to be, and who assumes that women are simple creatures who just can’t resist his old, wrinkly wiener.

Portnoy’s Complaint, like The Human Stain, is nothing but a memoir thinly disguised as a novel. Had I not read The Human Stain I might not have picked that up, but it’s obvious that Portnoy’s Complaint is just the opening volume to the story that (hopefully) nears completion in The Human Stain. There is no mistaking the fact that Silk is Portnoy all “grown up” (but not at all). Portnoy’s narcissism and his view of women carry neatly into Silk’s world, and Fawn is nothing but a new and improved version of The Monkey, one who will allow him to act out his sexual neuroses on her without expecting anything in return, which was The Monkey’s one fault. Good thing there are asshole ex-spouses to abuse women and break their spirits to get them ready for guys like Silk.

Did I mention the copious and exuberant use of the word “cunt” in both books? OK, Henry Miller.

My point in all this is that it takes a lot of talent to write penetrating analyses of other people, to create complex and human characters from scratch, to create a story from nothing, but it takes very little to write an insightful story about oneself. Who doesn’t have insight into themselves? Roth can’t see into the hearts and minds of others because he’s too busy studying his own reflection. There is not a single character in any of his books that is anything other than a caricature or an extension of one of Roth’s own psychological flaws. I’d be ready, if the world weren’t already inundated with the ramblings of narcissistic American Jewish men, to give him credit as a memoirist, but he even sinks in that shallow pool.

But who am I? Just some blogger. Roth taught at Princeton, you know. He’s got a lot of scarves and shit.

We all know how hard it is for women to break into the old boys’ clubs of the American literati, and the fact that this is the kind of thing that’s topping our lists of cultural achievement proves it. Until the East Coast magazines and book publishers — as well as the awards committees — cease to be dominated by old, misogynistic white men who think that they’re progressive because they let women do their proofreading and event planning, this is what we can expect. I don’t even make the argument that we should stop praising overtly (or subtly) gynophobic literature, or that we should require of our authors that they display any serious understanding of women. I love John Cheever and Saul Bellow as much as the next pretentious asshole. But if we’re going to make a big deal out of male-centric and misogynistic literature as offering some kind of valuable insight into our cultural character, it ought to at least be able to do so.