May 29, 2018
Jonathan Lethem discovers Philip Roth, joins the “army of Counter-Roths” — from More Alive and Less Lonely, out today in paperback
by Jonathan Lethem
Today we’re delighted to release the expanded paperback edition of More Alive and Less Lonely, last year’s instant-classic essay collection by library hero, Philip K. Dick enthusiast, and Picasso of the puking cat Jonathan Lethem, edited by the brilliant Christopher Boucher, who wrote that he found it “impossible not to be affected by Lethem’s joyful approach to his craft.”
There’s a lot that’s wonderful in the book, but this week feels like an especially apt time to revisit 2013’s “The Counter-Roth,” Lethem’s essay on his discovery of—and his being formatively influenced by—Philip Roth, the legendary author who died last week at the age of eighty-five.
Here are the first four of the essay’s seven sections. To read the whole thing, buy the book today.
I’d taken the train out to East Hampton, Long Island, bringing with me to read only the first volume of John Cowper Powys’s Wolf Solent. This was an ambiguous mission I was on — I’d been invited to a very nice rich girl’s family’s summer house, and I’m justified in calling her a girl because this was the summer after my first year of college and I was 19, a boy of 19. We’d been only friends at college but might be more, away from college: that was the ambiguous mission. I didn’t know what I wanted.
On the train I stared out the window, not making it past more than a chapter of the Powys. The girl and her mother picked me up at the station, a five-minute drive there and back, just long enough that by the time we entered the house, through the kitchen, the girl’s younger brother was caught in the act of pulling from the broiler two overdone, smoldering lobsters, their red partly blacked. The mother chided him, but affectionately, and insisted the lobsters be dumped immediately in the trash. I thought I’ll eat those, but no. This was a period in my life where I was persistently being startled, to the point of violation, by the behavior of the wealthy. No reading—not Powys, nor F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor Karl Marx—could have prepared me to witness such a thing in real life. We ate something other than lobsters. Then I was shown to the guest room. It was beautifully quiet, with a scattering of books on the shelves.
An evening seemed to yawn before me — the girl and I would have time to be confused about one another tomorrow and the next day. Everything was done very graciously in this house, no hurry. Left alone there with ponderous Powys, I reached instead for a book I hadn’t known existed: Philip Roth’s novella The Breast.
I’d at that point in my reading life kept a useless partition against Roth, who, thanks to the intimidating aura generated by a paperback copy of Letting Go on my mother’s shelves, I’d decided was a bestselling writer of grown-up realist novels of a sort that couldn’t possibly interest me. Oh judgmental and defended youth! But wait, now I had to consider the claims of the book’s dust jacket, that Roth worked in the realm of morbid fantasy, too. The realm of Kafka. This wasn’t fair, I thought. Kafka should belong to me.
Alone in the East Hampton guest room, I gobbled The Breast in one gulp. That’s how it came about, that’s how I began taking Roth aboard, the first tiny dose a kind of inoculation to make me ready for the long readerly sickness I still endure. For it is a sickness, most especially for a reader who wants to be a writer, to open oneself to a voice as torrential and encompassing, as demanding and rewarding, as that of Roth.
My situation in the East Hampton summer house was the stuff of Jewish comedy, if I’d had my Jewish antennae up. Had the brother been played by Christopher Walken, I was in a scene from Annie Hall. But I not only didn’t have my Jewish antennae up, I didn’t know I possessed any. By chance, and unlike a majority of Jews, I’d been raised so as not to take being Jewish, or in my case half-Jewish, in any way personally. I’d have to acquire those antennae elsewhere, by my reading.
It took overtly Jewish-American writing—by Bernard Malamud, who’d retired but was still lingering, thrillingly, around at the college the girl and I attended, and Saul Bellow, and yes, sometimes Roth, who is sometimes, when it serves the cause of the writing, overtly Jewish—to illuminate the connection between what I knew semi-consciously from the writing of the less-overt, such as Nathanael West or Barry Malzberg or Norman Mailer, as well as from sources like Groucho Marx and Abbie Hoffman and my Uncle Fred. What was it that was illuminated? That something aggravated and torrential in my voice, or perhaps I should call it my attempt at having a voice, was cultural in origin, even if aggravated and torrential frequently in the cause of disputing or even denying that point of origin.
As Roth points out, the books aren’t Jewish because they have Jews in them. The books are Jewish in how they won’t shut up or cease contradicting themselves, they’re Jewish in the way they’re sprung both from harangue and from defense against harangue, they’re Jewishly ruminative and provocative. Roth once said of Bellow that he closed the distance between Damon Runyon and Thomas Mann — well, given the generation of reader I’m from, Roth in turn closed the difference between Saul Bellow and Mad magazine. That’s to say, once I’d gained access to what he had to offer, Roth catalyzed my yearnings to high seriousness with the sense that the contemporary texture of reality demanded not only remorseless interrogation, but also remorseless caricature and ribbing. Contemporary reality, including perhaps especially the yearning to high seriousness, needed to be serially goosed.
Speaking of caricature, I’m aware I may appear to have lapsed into schtick — a conflation of potted Rothian syntax and shameless confession. My only defense is that I’m employing tools Roth helped instill in me, tools that may in fact be all I’ve got: a reliance on the ear, for devising a voice and then following where the voices insist on going, and a helpless inclination to abide with the self—with one’s own inclinations and appetites—as a lens for seeing what’s willing to be seen, and as a medium for saying what wants to be said.
Call me instead a Counter-Roth. For it is the fate of a Roth, being the rare sort of writer whose major phases sprawl across decades, whose work encompasses and transcends modes of historical fiction, metafiction, memoir, the maximalist (or putters-in), the minimalist (or takers-out), the picaresque and counterfactual, etcetera and so forth—being the sort of writer who in his generosity half blots out the sky of possibility for those who come along after—to generate in his ambitious followers a sort of army of Counter-Roths. I’ll say it simply: the one certainty in my generation of writers, not otherwise unified, is that we all have some feeling about Roth. We can’t not. Mostly it involves some kind of strongly opinionated, half-aggrieved love.
So, another confession: more than ten years after that encounter in East Hampton, I’d become a published novelist invited, for the first time, to a residence at the artist’s colony called Yaddo. By this time I’d pursued my Roth obsession to both ends of his bookshelf, as it existed at the time, as I was to continue following it, right up to the present. On my arrival at Yaddo, a fellow writer who helped me to my room at West House mentioned famous personages who’d written masterpieces behind the various windows—Sylvia Plath here, John Cheever there—and then, opening the door to what was to be my residence and studio both, unveiled a circular turret featuring a smooth domed ceiling: “The Breast Room,” he announced. I laughed, thinking he referred only to the shape. Then he explained that Roth, inspired by dwelling within the room’s contour, wrote The Breast there. As with many circumstances in a young writer’s life, I was exalted and humbled simultaneously — having been delivered by the Yaddo invitation into what I thought was my maturity, it turned out I was again to suckle at the fount of apprenticeship. Incidentally, if this story isn’t true, I don’t ever want to find out.
Jonathan Lethem is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels, including Dissident Gardens, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn; three short story collections; and two essay collections, including The Ecstasy of Influence, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. A recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lethem has published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and the New York Times, among other publications. His newest book is More Alive and Less Lonely.