Weiss and Pollitt

Becoming an Orphan
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 22 1998 8:49 AM

Weiss and Pollitt

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Dear Katha,

Advertisement

First, a confession. A couple years back I read Claire Bloom's book, Leaving a Doll's House, then threw the galley away, which is something this packrat almost never does. While I accepted Bloom's portrait of Philip Roth as mean, neurotic, self-centered, it didn't make a book for me, and I was put off by her passivity and failure to integrate her experience, though as I write this I wonder if I'm confusing it with the Mia Farrow book (Didn't like that either; though in the same genre, call it Fucking Genius. I enjoyed the Joyce Maynard, thought your recent review in the Times was spot-on.). Anyway, then I read I Married a Communist but it wasn't till an editor, lunching, said he thought the work was contaminated by its personal agenda that I finally got what everyone else has: the book's interior narrative, the marriage of Ira and Eve, echoes Roth-Bloom. I rate a Duh sticker for that.

But then, what difference does it make? Writers have always cannibalized their associates, and Roth is (apparently) doing so in a highly traditional manner, cloaking his enemy in a different time and place. I feel as if memoirs have so disrupted the life of the novel that this technique now feels sneaky to some.

The real problem with the Ira-Eve-Sylphid story is, as you said, it's tiresome. At one point Ira is described as a savage bore. Who was it who said a great writer can be interesting about something boring? Wilde, James? I forget. Roth can't. I didn't care what happened to Ira.

But I loved this book, and here's why.

First off, as you noted, it has tremendous purpose. The narrator grabs us, Ancient Mariner style, because he has an important story to tell us. And boy is this serious material. Consequently, the style is rarely self-indulgent; it's headlong. American Pastoral, which I didn't finish, seemed flaccid, Updikean. The voice of this book is Bellow electric, with bursts of irony. On Ira's sudden fame: "Don't think he minded becoming someone of enhanced importance. That's an adaptation people seem able to implement in about seventy-two hours, and generally the effect is invigorating."

Second, and maybe you and I part company here, is the narrator's wisdom.

Nathan Zuckerman is now an aging hermit. Having spent his life trying to manipulate the world and being manhandled by it, he's retreated to the woods with worn nerves. To act is to err, he says. Life is a process of moving from one pitfall to another. One doesn't know one's own life story, let alone control it. To me these themes are humane and wonderful, and Shakespearean. (I just read Twelfth Night for the first time, I'm in a weeklong high of discovery; there, too, the characters are helpless).

Nathan wants to understand his progress. As a youth he had needed to separate himself from his Truman Democrat father. And so found a new father in the foolish but compelling Ira, lover of the worker. The redbaiters are hateful but the Communists are idiotic. (And in a promotional interview that Houghton Mifflin sent me, Roth says the left was wrong about Alger Hiss).

I think of my own youthful errors, the simplistic father figures I found to take me away from my father's accommodations. In the 70's I supported the NLF, naively underestimating their despotism. Becoming a man is about becoming an orphan, Roth observes. And while you are right to anticipate my masculine identification with this narrator, I don't see this theme as patriarchal. It resonates with a great work about a girl's intellectual and political independence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie...

So. Did you see any of your own political progress in Nathan's? And could you elaborate on your aside about today's informers?

Philip

Philip Weiss is a novelist and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. Katha Pollitt is associate editor at The Nation. Her most recent book is Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism. This week they discuss Philip Roth's I Married a Communist (Houghton-Mifflin; 336 pages; $26).

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.