November 8, 2006
To Err Is Human
I’ve fallen in love with Philip Roth. Here’s a metaphor for you: a glass of wine so perfect you sip it slowly and carefully, resting it on the table after every drop to consider it afresh, swish it around and marvel at its taste and texture, savor its interplay with the ingredients of your meal. That’s Philip Roth for me right now. I love his books so much I want to put them down.
I want to live in Roth’s America. I don’t actually mean I want to live in Jewish New Jersey, but Roth’s Jersey is an apt stand-in for an America I recognize completely, riven by an endless battle between disappointment and hope. At least in his recent novels, you can read America into his protagonists as well: they’re giants with mythical qualities and deep, deep flaws, and antagonists whose motives are often (not always) sympathetic and understandable.
This latter dynamic is clearest in The Human Stain, which is my favorite of the Roth novels I’ve read so far. Coleman Silk, the novel’s brilliant, athletic, accomplished protagonist, actually effects a sort of personal American Revolution, declaring independence from his heritage to grant himself the freedom to achieve his fullest potential. Silk is destroyed — but not undone — by a version of our modern terrorists, a crazed veteran of the Vietnam War. But the central fact of Coleman’s life is that he has suppressed and constrained the deepest aspects of himself to acquire what he believes will be freedom. And when he is slandered by his colleagues at the university he has helped to distinguish, his betrayal of himself traps and smothers him. Perhaps these are cautionary tales for America rather than straight depictions of the America we know, but I hear strong echoes of this country’s story in Coleman Silk’s.
Of course, Roth’s characters have resonances far beyond being allegories for America. His narrators especially are fascinating: thinly-disguised alter egos for Roth himself (in The Plot Against America, the narrator actually is a young boy named Philip Roth), dutifully recording the lives of the heroes and antiheroes around them, adding just enough perspective to hint at the vast interior life behind their innocuous veneers. Call it gimmicky postmodernism, call it obvious, call it a cop-out, but when done well, I think the-author-in-the-novel can be one of the richest techniques in fiction. (Another of the authors I love is Paul Auster.) Roth works the technique for all it’s worth, constantly blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and novel and essay. It means we’re constantly aware of the text as text, and of our act of reading, and the attendant responsibility of interpretation. Unlike a John Grisham or Michael Crichton book, you don’t lose yourself in a piece of meta-fiction, you find yourself in it.
And every step of the way, Roth challenges: his characters, his narrators, himself, you. One such challenge is the passage that inspired this little reflection, from American Pastoral. It is about the impossibility and the necessity of interpretation. It is about the collision of cultures, a phrase synonymous with America. And it is about the purpose of art.
Here it is:
You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while youíre anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while youíre with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision each otherís interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact is that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. Itís getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. Thatís how we know weíre alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that - well, lucky you.