Top positive review
Not the best book by Roth, but still worth recommending
on June 17, 2004
This is the second Philip Roth book that I have read in which the author himself is a main character. In the other one, Patrimony, Roth came across as a humble, compassionate, good-natured human being. In this one, he comes across as an egomaniacal, paranoid, self-aggrandizing jerk. I've read more than a half dozen of his novels, and I consider him to be the best American writer alive today, so the bitter taste that I was left with after reading this book likely won't last long and won't tarnish my overall impression of him as a writer. But still, I have to wonder how much of the character of Roth in this book is fiction, and how much of it is true. Despite its pretense of being a true confession, this book is obviously a work of fiction, so one could conclude that the character of Roth is just that - a character and nothing more. But to dismiss without further exploration would be to oversimplify it. After all, this is Roth writing about Roth, and surely he made this a first-person account for a reason. Obviously he wanted to use this writer-as-character technique as a mechanism for conveying his personal opinions. And on top of that, he creates another character of the exact same name and similar in appearance to serve as a foil or alter ego. Neither character, unfortunately, comes across as sympathetic - one on purpose, but not the other. The Roth who narrates this book is cruel, selfish, self-centered, and immature. I lost count of how many times the character commented on his quest for the Nobel Prize - always in a facetious, backhanded sort of way to make it seem like it wasn't a big deal to him.
My other main criticism of this book - and I think I'm allowed to write this since one side of my family is Jewish - is that this book is too, um, Jewish. Roth is obviously known as an author who writes about the Jewish experience, so it's no surprise that this theme appears in yet another of his books. But here it's not just a theme - the whole book is about being Jewish. I have to wonder if that will limit the appeal of this book to a narrow audience. Even I found it tedious at times. I much preferred his other books in which the Jewish experience was one element of a much broader, deeper message.
That said, I still recommend this book. After all, it is Philip Roth, and his expert craftsmanship is evident throughout the novel. The humor that he is known for pops up every now and then as well, though not as much, perhaps, as in his other (better) books.