Was there ever a novelist who was more of a novelist than Philip Roth? More of a long-haul moralist, more of a titanic grump, more of a sex fiend, more of an industrial reality-processor, more of a deskbound hero, more of a get-up-early-and feed-your-life-into-the-grinder (even if your back is killing you) type of guy? His prose is prose, definitively prose, anti-felicitous and slightly barbarous. No Updikean grace notes, no heavenly Bellow-isms, no glassy Cheever esque rhapsodies. When it’s bad, it’s mechanical. When it’s good, it’s biblical: stacked clauses and surging power and a shaking of fists at the skies.
Thirty-one books. A 55-year career that basically turned himself and everyone around him inside out. The questions to which he sought answers, the questions of the mighty novelist—why? why? why?—were primordial and inexhaustible. The agonized alter egos who rotated through his books, the Zuckermans, the Kepeshes, the “Philip Roths,” were not experimental fiddles or metafictional gimmicks: They were ways of coming at it, ways of getting into it, ways of being real. How to crowbar as much of himself into the novel as possible, and then do it again—that was the experiment.
And now we have the authorized biography, appropriately massive (900 pages). Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth comes flapping at us like a magnificent albatross through the mist, a heavy, feathery projectile from beyond the rim of time. Roth’s been dead only three years, but already his writer’s world of big advances, big divorces, big controversies, big houses in Connecticut, and big reviews in The New York Times feels as remote as Elizabethan England.
Bailey is a very good writer and a very good literary biographer. A double- or triple-natured subject is not beyond him. (See 2009’s superb Cheever: A Life.) In 2012, Roth interviewed Bailey, sternly demanding by what authority “a gentile from Oklahoma” would presume to tell the story of one of the century’s most explosive literary Jews. Bailey got the gig; Roth gave him the run of his archive, and the run of his memory.
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