In Philip Roth: Critical Studies (Greenwood 2005)Philip Roth, MVP: Our Gang, The Breast, and The Great American Novel
Philip Roth is a historian and a comic. This covers the bases. Better, though, to say Philip Roth is a true American historian, and the finest stand-up comic ever to settle down on the printed page. No group of his books make for better vehicles for these two leading aspects of Roth than the strangely kindred trio with which Roth entered The Me Decade: Our Gang (1971), The Breast (1972), and The Great American Novel (1973).
Baseball players will tell you that the hardest hit to get, and the most satisfying one in the game, is either a sweet single up the middle or a triple all the way to the wall. Individually, and collectively, these books fit that formula. Individually, each of course stands alone. Collectively, they are alike in being searing satires: of politics, of self-importance, of greed, of sexual prejudice (but never of sex itself, always a public and private good in Roth’s writing), and primarily of cultural flaws that arguably run through any society, but that touched and concerned America most during these years. Jonathan Swift, still the king of satire in literature in English, and particularly Gulliver’s Travels and the hapless Lemuel Gulliver himself, haunt these novels in a healthy and happy way. Together, they make up a lovely literary trifecta of three of Roth’s--and my own, and how many other people’s?--favorite topics: sex, baseball, and politics. And they rock all the formerly safe, All-American worlds in which we sought refuge at such a time in our history, mirroring exactly the way in which those worlds were being rocked by the stories appearing in the press every day: more dead in Vietnam; college campuses in tumult; psychoanalysis ill-equipped to deal with general cultural meltdown; celebrated sports figures speaking out against the government; war underlying everything, and literature an entirely inadequate way to fight the fear. When the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, we try to tell ourselves it’s not so bad. Roth knows that it is.
These three novels are simple to summarize. In order, they are about the Nixon administration, a man who turns into a giant breast, and baseball. Now, politics, breasts and the Great American Game were not new in the early 1970s to American literature, and especially to Roth. The politics of war, religion, and sex fill the stories of Goodbye, Columbus; baseball is, perhaps, Roth’s greatest love since childhood. Even Alex Portnoy becomes jubilant, just for once, about the memory of playing center field, a position Roth seems to favor in his fiction even above pitcher: "Oh, to be a center fielder, a center fielder--and nothing more!" (Portnoy 72). And though all three books are serious critiques, not to be taken lightly--not even The Breast, lightest of the three--they are also what we too often forget fiction was, once upon a time, first published to be: fun to read. To talk ponderously of Roth’s sense of Derridean jouissance would spoil it all; what he has, as a writer and wordsmith, is an unequivocally most valuable sense of play. In these three books, he spends more time at play and inducing us to join him than he does in any of his other novels....
Copyright Greenwood Press 2005.