John Self, over on his Asylum blog, has written an excellent review of Roth's Exit Ghost. John's review could easily grace the pages of any broadsheet, but it misses what makes Roth's book so exciting and different to the mass of adequate Establishment Literary Fiction that crowds the shelves.

James Wood gets nearer to what makes Roth special in his New Yorker article Parade’s End: The many lives of Nathan Zuckerman:

Roth has been the great stealth postmodernist of American letters, able to have his cake and eat it without any evidence of crumbs. This is because he does not regard himself as a postmodernist. He is intensely interested in fabrication, in the performance of the self, in the reality that we make up in order to live; but his fiction examines this “without sacrificing the factuality of time and place to surreal fakery or magic-realist gimmickry,” as Zuckerman approvingly says of Lonoff’s work. Roth does not want to use his games to remind us, tediously and self-consciously, that Nathan and Amy and Lonoff are just “invented characters.” Quite the opposite. Unstartled by their inventedness, he swims through depthless skepticism toward a series of questions that are gravely metaphysical, and more Jamesian than Pynchonian: How much of any self is pure invention? Isn’t such invention as real to us as reality? But then how much reality can we bear? Roth knows that this kind of inquiry, far from robbing his fiction of reality, provokes an intense desire in his readers to invest his invented characters with solid reality, just as Nathan once invested the opaque Amy Bellette with the reality of Anne Frank. In this kind of work, the reader and the writer do something similar—they are both creating real fictions.

Roth "does not regard himself as a postmodernist." And neither do I. The power of Exit Ghost comes from Jamesian questions, as Wood says, not postmodernist answers. The power comes from Roth's modernism.

Readers Comments

  1. Mark, you're making some very important points here but I also think what is often termed "post-modernism", such as Lessing's "Golden Notebooks" and "100 Years of Solitude", is actually modernism, too, by this definition. I think there has been a kind of blurring of terms through what is really literary genre writing which has claimed post-modernism as it own without actually containing its genuine elements. That is, there is a big difference between Marquez and his magic realism and most contemporary literary genre work--yet they are both put in a "post-modernist" category. For me it's a question of a depthlessness in literary genre writing and reliance on an artificial objectivity which tends to serve to celebrate a surface and cultural depthlessness and doesn't probe the personal, the authentic self as in navigates through reality and psyche and "civilization".
    An excellent definition of the confusion can be found in "Framed by Language: edited by Jorun B. Johns and Katherine Arens. A case is made that the dissolution of subjectivity, and its material for the creation of a unique self in literature is really the defining criteria. And so other writers besides Roth called "post-modernist" could actually be redefined modernist if these two categories were not so blurred and misapplied, I think.

  2. Thanks for the link Mark (but ooh, that sting in the tail!). A ranking below the great James Wood is a pecking order I'm happy to abide by.

    I must admit that as a general reader who knows nothing of literary criticism or literary theory, much of what Wood (and Leora Skolkin-Smith) says above passes over my head. What I would hope to do with my pretty basic review is interest people like myself in an author who we all know we're supposed to like but who can be tricky to 'get into'. For the record, it was American Pastoral which finally pushed my buttons, after having mixed reactions to three other Roth novels.

    By the way Mark, I picked up Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt on your recommendation, and hope to report back on it soon!

  3. Hi John,

    I hope my sting in the tail wasn't too cruel a barb! You wrote a great review. The kind of review I've written less well many times before, and still write regularly over on The Book Depository.

    But it struck me particularly hard with this latest Roth novel that these kind of reviews, useful as they might be for giving a basic synopsis plus an evaluative thumbs up or thumbs down, don't come anywhere near to being satisfactory responses.

    Reviewing Establishment Literary Fiction like this i.e. "Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach" is a dull story, desperate but failing miserably to be profound, of a marriage that never gets started" seems fair enough. But Roth's anti-hubristic, yet proud literary self-investigation into writing and being a writer, living and dying, needs more.

    Particularly, it needs to investigate what it is that marks this out as special. It has to begin to delve into what the literary qualities of Roth's work actually are.

    And that is hard work.

    Wood does a decent job, but I still think Roth's self-defeating meditation requires us to think very hard about how it succeeds on a literary level, as literature. I'll attempt to say more about this anon.

  4. Hi, John, so sorry to not be able to explain to you what I meant! All I was saying is that there were other important writers , besides Roth, who were being labeled "post-modernist" and who really weren't. And like Roth these other writers wrote from personal places, notably Ms. Lessing whose The Golden Notebooks is just an alter-ego kind of book, a character like Roth's Zuckerman, who is based on Doris Lessing herself. And so are Grace Paley stories, and other writers less prolific than Roth.And because of their "personal-ness", they weren't so different from Roth.
    "Post-modernism" was a slippery, ambiguous term is all I was trying to point out and also that Philip Roth wasn't at all the only writer around these days who wrote from a personal alter-ego place within himself.
    I get carried away in what I feel, so I hope this offers some clarification. Believe me, I'm trying to figure it all out, too!

    I again apologize if my tone was too lofty or alienating.

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