The Skinless Novelist
Are editors polishing away Henry Roth's neurotic genius?
This is visceral stuff, unflinching in its anatomy of ignominy, particularly if that ignominy happens to be Roth's. Given that he writes like a man doubled over from a blow to the stomach, it must be said that Roth does an impressive job of taking in what goes on around him. At its best, his prose has a manic sketchiness, an observational shorthand, that feels as intimate as thought yet has the power to startle back to life a poignant variety of vanished things. There are the Dobos-torte-like layers of Ira's immigrant self-doubt, but also the weird quackery of a small-town barber (he tries to convince Ira he has "pore worms") and the intestinal workings of Ira's uncle's greasy-spoon cafe: "The small kitchen was hot and close, the walls brown as a roach, and humid. Ira watched him while he filled a couple of orders, fingering the meatballs and positioning the pork chops on the plate. 'What do you think they do at the Waldorf?' he replied to Ira's unspoken question. 'Different?' "
Another pleasure is eavesdropping on Ira's ruminations on his writing, which can give you some inkling of method underneath the maddening sprawl. Rocking ungently on some sharp steel bars covering the floor of the refrigerator car of a freight train, Ira lets his familiar mix of self-recrimination and grandiosity resolve itself into a free-verse nursery rhyme, beaten out to the rhythm of the tracks. It seems to add up to a literary credo: "Come to nort, all abort … sternly bring your faculties to a focus by composing an autobiography, freely associative … but governed by implicit rules of narration … augment suspense toward a climax … a climax that would exclude present distress."
If you know anything about Roth's subsequent life, you know that there would be no excluding of distress, and no real climax either. He and M. (Muriel Parker, who became his wife) would have children, move to Maine, and subside into an even more devastating, because more rural, poverty. An American Type does have a climax, Ira and M.'s marriage. This was put in place not by Roth but by the volume's editor, a young fiction editor at TheNew Yorker named Willing Davidson, who culled from a 1,900-page manuscript a work that feels very much like a novel. According to an afterword, he mostly put the events back into chronological order and cut out most of the material about Roth's later life.
All this reshaping was skillfully done—Davidson wields a sharper scalpel than the editor of Mercy did, and the prose in An American Type reads more cleanly as a result—and yet this volume raises anew the questions that, 15 years after Roth's death, are starting to become urgent: Do Roth's confessions have an internal integrity that is getting lost as pieces continue to be sliced off and honed and brought out as "novels" and "stories"? Is it utterly impossible that he came up with a new form of autobiography, one that was "freely associative" and had "implicit rules of narration"? It's worth noting that the same batch of material Davidson has drawn on for An American Type yielded two excerpts in The New Yorker, and that they read like the work of a completely different writer. The New Yorker Roth is a much perkier, wittier fellow, exactly the sort of NewYorker author Roth dreamed of being and on a very few occasions was able to be. What does the variation in tone among all these "novels" and "stories" tell us about Roth, exactly, other than that his prose is malleable and susceptible to "improvement"?
Maybe it's just that Roth's haplessness arouses my protectiveness, but I can't help bristling at these repeated attempts to impose a conventional morphology on an artist who seems to have been determined to eschew one. Not having access to the manuscripts, I can't tell you whether Roth succeeded in what he set out to do. But I can pass along some hints that Roth drops about what he thinks he's up to. Or, to be more precise, what he isn't up to. He isn't writing a finely wrought, Joycean novel like Call It Sleep. As he tells us in Mercy, he has turned against T.S. Eliot and Joyce, the dominant influences of his youth, particularly the character of Leopold Bloom, whom he denounces as a deracinated Jew. Roth isn't writing anything that would aesthetize and mythologize the petty miseries of his childhood, as he did in Call It Sleep.
And he is not selling his soul to the literary world. This is one of the dominant themes of An American Type. Roth had tried to rebel against his literary-insider mistress and his own seemingly unearned success by becoming a Communist, but the propaganda the Communists prompted him to produce was even more intolerable to him than whatever he felt guilty of in Call It Sleep. (In real life, Roth burned the manuscript of the novel that glorified a character like Bill.) He further refused, or was unable, to craft the kind of plot-driven, marketable prose that would have earned him a living. Or so we deduce from scenes in American Type involving an agent named Virginia N., who tells Ira he's got to come "to the point" and leave "sensibility out of the picture." Ira muses: "She discarded the life for the scheme. The scheme Ira had never mastered; he thought he had a sense of life."
Roth, in short, was a literary refusnik. So what did all that rejecting leave him with? Very little but his "sense of life"—but that he had to a degree most writers can only dream of, and few could tolerate. I imagine (though I don't know) that that "sense of life" is what he meant to leave us with. I very much doubt Roth would have had American Type climax with a marriage. * Indeed, Davidson tells us he didn't. Roth may have had a problem with the very idea of endings. In Mercy of a Rude Stream he quotes more than once a Talmudic saying to the effect that you are not required to finish, but you are not allowed to stop, either. Life, unlike fiction, has neither crisp beginnings nor redemptive endings. It endures, as Roth did, until it doesn't. The saddest ending of all would be if Roth's amorphous, neurotic, miraculously unquashable "sense of life" was precisely what got polished out of his work.
Correction, June 10, 2010: This article originally implied that the novel American Type ends with a marriage. That's the novel's climax, but it ends with the death of Ira's wife and Ira's determination to keep writing.
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Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.