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The Essential Philip Roth

P
robably you cannot accurately measure a writer — or any person — until the moment after his death. A life can stretch out in front of you, but until it’s over, you don’t know how the beginning truly informed the end; you won’t quite understand the poetry of the person’s story until its themes match up and you know exactly where and what the entire murky middle was. This is what biography is for.

But likewise, just when a writer’s biography comes out, it’s a good time to remember the writer’s actual books. I’ve read every single piece of ink ejaculated over the publication of Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography”; I am Taffy Brodesser-Akner: The Obsessed. I wound a tourniquet around my arm and injected each piece in and floated around in my high. My favorites so far are this terrific Magazine story by Mark Oppenheimer and Cynthia Ozick’s passionate review. I think as time goes on, the question of which piece of “Philip Roth: The Biography” coverage was your personal jam will become a Rorschach test of the kind of reader you are. Were you a New Republic takedown type? Were you into that Harper’s hallucination where Philip Roth’s ghost (allegedly) reviewed his own biography? Perhaps you were in thrall to the angry Tablet story that asked, nay demanded, to know: “Where’s the Semen?” Or maybe you’re a disgusting bore and instead worried your chin with the anguished Sydney Morning Herald troll who was concerned that Philip Roth didn’t deserve to be read due to crimes against polite society, or whatever. (I couldn’t get through that one; I do not dismiss or make light of allegations of wrongdoing, but someone whose entire premise consists of wondering if we should even read a biography or any work by an important and influential writer because of a person’s bad but probably not criminal behavior does, truly, seem like a troll.) Friends, what does my Rorschach read when I tell you that I was all of those people (except that last one)? Where is the semen, indeed.

The Roth biography contains everything you’d ever want or need to know about Philip Roth, but it doesn’t contain his most crucial aspect: his writing. You could read about all of him — his relationships, his misogyny, his misandry, Newark, boobs, his alleged anti-Semitism, his not-alleged self-hatred and hatred of others, his failed friendships, his failed marriages, how consumed he was with not wanting to get women pregnant but yes, wanting to have unprotected sex with them — but you’ll never really understand him until you read his books. Worse, you’ll never understand why he was worth all the trouble until you do.

Now, it’s a task to narrow his 31 books down into an essential list. All of them are readable; most of them are good; and more of them masterpieces than a fellow novelist who is frankly faltering on her own second novel can bear to acknowledge. Philip Roth was born in 1933. He died in 2018. I was born in 1975. I read my first Roth, which was “Portnoy’s Complaint,” in 1987. My mother wouldn’t let me read young adult literature. She thought the girls on the cover of the Sweet Valley High books looked “suggestive” and “fast,” and she was forever in the business of trying to anticipate and forestall my and my three sisters’ unplanned teenage pregnancies (and who could guarantee that those would not come from a Sweet Valley High book?). My studious older sister brought home “Portnoy” one day; nobody suspected her of wrongdoing, and the severe, text-only cover swam in stealth mode under my mother’s nose. Eventually, it made its way to me. So like my sister, I read about a young man masturbating with a section of raw liver; I read it right there at the dining room table in front of my mother. My sister and I have one true skill and it’s that we can keep a straight face through anything. My mother served her baked ziti, and at night she slept soundly knowing that her girls were not reading about slutty twins in convertibles getting to first base before curfew.

All this to say that when I first read Roth, he was an old-seeming, dirty kind of guy. His text — the emotion, the vocabulary, the 90-word sentences — struck my heart so hard that there in my brain was paved a superhighway so deep and specific and so fully of sex and anger and vicious storytelling that nothing else that I read after, nothing I heard after, is ever quite good enough. As I grew older, and as I read forward, I realized that Roth wasn’t just an old guy with a few good books — he was still going and going, none of the precious decade-long wait for the next book that so many of our greatest authors force us to endure. By the time I was 21, I caught up to him and bought my first Philip Roth book off the New Releases table. It was “American Pastoral,” and after the fog of days that followed while I read it, I emerged to realize he was only getting better.

My God, you are so lucky if you get to read these for the first time.

 

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