Write About it Wednesday: Philip Roth

“Is that what eternity is for, to muck over a lifetime’s minutiae? Who could have imagined that one would have forever to remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component?”

Philip Roth is a legend, a literary icon. You can’t follow the New York Times Book Review without hearing his name. It was his passing that ultimately led to my picking up Indignation, and a fellow writers review of his classic American Pastoral. She was pitching her article to a magazine and I felt compelled to learn more about this mysterious Roth. I consider myself a bit of a reading rebel.  I never go for the book everyone talks about. What is the fun in that? My preconceived notions will just get in the way. This was Roth’s 29th book and reads as a coming of age novel set in the second year of the Korean War. When I think coming of age, I think figuring out who you are and what you want out of life. Instead, this is sexual frustration, blow jobs, and a realization that you get along with no one and want to run away from the possibility of the front lines of war. Marcus, a sophomore at a conservative college, finds himself in the exact trouble that he tries to stay away from. The first 200 pages of the novel describe experiences at college that lead Marcus to his untimely death. The reader knows he is dead from the beginning but isn’t wise to the circumstances until the final 15 pages. It is a ton of build up but pays off in the end.

I can respect Roth as a writer on so many levels. Could I have used a few less sexual references for my taste? Yes. His descriptions are unparalleled though. You can tell he devoted time to his craft. There is a scene where Marcus is reading to his mother as she falls asleep from one of his textbooks and I thought to myself how real this moment feels. Roth chose a relevant book from the period, that Marcus would have been studying, and quotes the book as if Marcus is reading to you as well. I’ve never read a book with extensive detail that added to the experience instead of making the reader feel overwhelmed with information. It was perfect. He uses the backdrop of butchering (Marcus’s job back home) to relay large moral issues that still hold true today. Why a butcher? If only I could ask him the questions that stirred in my brain as I finished reading.

Roth won the National Book Award twice, a Pulitzer Prize, and multiple PEN/Faulkner awards. His degrees were in English, he taught literature and his career was successfully entitled “novelist.” He lived the dream of many writers. He quit writing for a time and reread all his works. He kept writing. In this aspect, he is someone to admire and study. I’m glad I picked this one up, but I hope my next Roth is less on the sexual awakening side…Any recommendations? Happy Reading!

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