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Threadbare discontent in Philip Roth

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The Humbling


It may be a perverse method of exploration, to start with a novel written near the end of an author’s most productive years, without then finding the spark of enthusiasm to work my way backward to a signature satire like Portnoy’s Complaint, but such were the circumstances which led me to The Humbling, published by Philip Roth in 2009. This was not by conscious design. While Roth was busy generating income from the screen adaptation of Portnoy’s Complaint, this reviewer was in a surgical ward reading Chaim Potok; in my more mature university years, it was Henry Roth of Call It Sleep on the roster, not Philip.

To the extent the more famous Roth filtered through, it was in the films based on his books: Richard Benjamin, counting money out on a patio table as an act of defiance against the matriarchal norms of his ethnicity, or Anthony Hopkins miscast as the principle lead in The Human Stain.

Far be it for me to take issue with Leon Wieseltier’s astute analysis of Simon Axler’s collapse. Where we agree is on the issue of Roth’s threadbare stridency. The opening paragraph asserts “He couldn‘t act,” with a dry thud of persistence which is gradually flushed out in the second and third sections. Every cultural reference in the text is conventional, from Macbeth‘s dark hubris to Strindberg‘s absurdist abstraction with theatrical suicide in the play Julia.

Art therapy is a much maligned modality in the literary world, but the art therapy room is where Simon meets the Sybil Van Buren who will prove to be his final inspiration as both the Grecian prophetess and the faux fractured personality, just as the lesbian Pegeen is the product of the overbearing Jewish mother. Critics have been too hasty in their fixation with Roth’s anti-homosexuality. Everyone in this narrative is self-absorbed to the point of a stultifying atmospheric pressure. Simon and Sybil; Simon and Pegeen with their jilted loves and absence of children. Roth is attempting to use the stark irony of conceits which have been done to death, conjoined with his well known implosion of American emotional betrayals resolved at the end of a muzzle, to join the 21st century dialogue of digital overkill.

It doesn’t work, but this is irrelevant to Hollywood. They cast Pacino in the adaptation.