Saturday, March 19, 2011

Happy Birthday Philip Roth


Catapulted to literary fame by his 1959 book Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth has been slaughtering sacred cows by the herd ever since; in 1969 he tackled the still-touchy subject of adolescent sexuality with his third novel, Portnoy's Complaint, one of the few books I've ever read that promises funny on the cover and actually delivers funny on almost every page between those same covers.

Endlessly inventive in terms of form as well as content, Roth's books could be counted on to challenge as well as amuse and enrage, often through the person of his literary alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. Yet every voice raised in complaint against him was handily drowned out by the ringing of cash registers; for the last four decades his books have been the ones readers have wanted to read, along with those of Mailer, Vonnegut, Vidal, Updike, and Oates.

Coming to terms with the post-WWII era hasn't been easy, and in order to do it, Roth has had to train his laser-like mind on themes as close to himself as Judaism and masculinity, raising hackles at the same time as surely as he drove himself to the brink of madness. One of the first to blur the line between character and author (at least in his first-person narrations) for better or worse Roth was one of the towering talents who, in the latter half of the twentieth century, made the English-language novel an infinitely more self-aware animal than it had been.

Of them all, though, my favourite remains one of the most recent - namely The Plot Against America; published in 2004, it presents a conterfactual or alternate history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The ensuing Fascism and anti-Semitism which sweeps the nation makes it an interesting counterpart to Sinclair Lewis' still entirely readable 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, both of which I read at the height (or, if you prefer, depth) of the previous Administration - namely its re-election.

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