Sunday, October 14, 2007

Roth and dachshunds

The dachshunds frolic through Washington Square Park twice a year. The latest installment...

Exit Ghost. The problem is not that Nathan Zuckerman is a cranky old man. The problem is that the words Roth (not Zuckerman) puts into younger characters' mouths show no evidence of an old man reconnecting with the young-adult world, but are exactly what someone gone for 11 years would incorrectly imagine. Fear of Communism is still strong, as is the great WASP-Jew divide (other races do not exist in New York, much like gays in Iran). A character from a wealthy but by no means fundamentalist Protestant family is ostracized by her father for marrying a Jew. By all accounts, in 2004 when the book is set, if a shit is given in either direction, it would of course be the other way around.

All young people on the Upper West Side are, Zuckerman notes, horrified by the results of the 2004 election; voting for Bush 'for Israel' is something done only by cranky old men who live outside the city. The fantasy of a solidly-Democrat, good-Jewish-liberal Upper West Side is, again, something a trip back to the city in 2004 should set straight, not confirm. These are the politics of 1993. (And really, cellphones are the weirdest bit of technology in 2004 New York? If I were an alien from another planet or, say, Nathan Zuckerman back from the Berkshires, I might be a bit more confused by the white cords coming out of everyone's ears.)

My Complaint is not just the anachronism, but what it means for the book. We are not to take Zuckerman as a stand-in for Roth, but as an independent character in his own right. As the author, Roth should be able to give characters sentences to say that genuinely surprise Zuckerman. Instead, it is clear that the author is as clueless as the protagonist, and in exactly the same ways.

Other than that, the book did indeed come out of the Philip Roth Novel Generator. Literary name-dropping, University of Chicago, young non-Jewish temptresses, ever-fascinating male anatomy, it's all plugged into the machine (not a computer, god forbid, Luddite that ZuckerRoth is) and out pops another one. In other words, it's readable but predictable. So went my experiment reading something not about French or North African Jews.

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