Critics are often polarized when it comes to Philip Roth. Ever since his off-color debut novel/love letter to masturbating, Portnoy's Complaint was published in 1969 (at the height of the sexual revolution, no less), he has become a sort of fixture in the literary world (like it or not) and has gone on to publish 30 books.
His books often portray what it is to be a Jewish-American in New York City, they're at once humorous and poignant. Roth has won countless awards, chief among them the PEN/Faulkner Award, National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral.
His career features a long list of recurring characters, and he seemingly built a parallel universe for them and possibly, himself. It is often noted that Roth drew inspiration from his own life for his books. This lead to his controversial 19th book, Operation Shylock: A Confession (published in 1993) which received a caustic review from Roth's contemporary, John Updike. The book dealt with Roth's Kafka-esque encounter with his doppleganger who was trying to spread, "Diasporism". Roth stood by the belief that the experiences in the book had really occurred, however, it was later discovered that his "experiences" for the novel were the side effect of a drug that was later banned. Nevertheless, Operation Shylock added a fascinating veneer to his appeal.
A common theme in Roth's books is sexuality, and in The Counterlife (published in 1986) dealt with Zuckerman, a recurring character in Roth's fictional universe, and his younger brother, Henry. Henry faces a dilemma after he discovers he has advanced obstructive arterial disease and he must either go on a drug that would either make him sexually impotent or have a risky triple bypass surgery that would maintain his sexual drive. The book was largely celebrated by critics and Roth was awarded the 1987 National Book Critics Circle Award.
Whether it be The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, Portnoy's Complaint or the above example, Roth has by no means limited his love of a certain appendage when it comes to his work. For many people, this is off-putting. I will admit, after having read Portnoy's Complaint, The Dying Animal and The Counterlife, I'm not all that crazy about his sexual perversity, or rather, the way he presents it. His unique story structure is often bludgeoned to death by his desire to show how much he loves his penis. To add to this point, I was disturbed by the climax in Portnoy's Complaint that finds the titular character objectifying women and ultimately, raping one.
Yesterday was Philip Roth's 80th birthday, and the literary community is esteeming his legacy, but I want to know reader's thoughts now that I've shared my own.
Tweet at me here (@chicagoliterati or @abby_sheaffer) or comment below and we'll talk about him some more, I'd love to hear from you.
Filed under: Opinion