Saturday, January 06, 2007

Wrong Again

American Pastoral is not my favorite Philip Roth novel, and I've complained about the fact that it is, in my opinion, consistently over-praised, while the masterful Sabbath's Theater, for example, is all too often ignored. That said, I do like it, and there's no question that it has some great writing in it. For a variety of reasons that I won't go into here, I feel compelled to post the following passage (which had been brought back to my attention via this interview with Peter Carey by Robert Birnbaum in 2003):
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 you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you go home to 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 a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s 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?


Anonymous said...

I agree about "Pastoral" - the thing as a whole felt forced, self-conscious. To this day, the only thing I can remember clearly is the scene under the bridge. (And honestly, even that's not that clear. It had its moments, but on the whole disappointing. "Ghost Writer" was much better.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, Sabbath's Theater was one of the only books in Philip Roth's oeuvre that looked interesting, other than Portnoy's Complaint (but then I found out they made a movie out of it, and that makes me a little hesitant). Reading some criticism of Sabbath's makes me just as hesitant, and I don't even know if I want to read Roth in the first place (or any of the Great Big Living Authors, as I had a bad experience with DeLillo, who turned out for me to be nothing but a precursor to Bret Easton Ellis).