2018, Books, Fiction, RIP

RIP Philip Roth

When any famous author whom I’ve read dies, I always struggle with what to write. I have a lot to say about musicians and sometimes I have a lot to say about filmmakers, but with authors I feel like whatever I write will be inadequate. When someone as prolific and respected as Philip Roth dies, this inability to express myself seems even greater. What could I possibly say about one of the greatest American authors ever?

I don’t have an answer to that question but I’m compelled to write anyway. I have read only four of Roth’s novels and only one of his short stories. And I must admit that what I have read is heavily skewed towards the end of his career – of the four novels of his that I have read, three were published in the 21st century. And I must admit that one of those I didn’t like, though I grudgingly gave it a higher grade because, even when I don’t like the particular story Roth is telling, I can’t help but admire who he puts a sentence together.

But I feel compelled to say something on Roth’s passing primarily for one reason, and that reason is American Pastoral. If a “perfect” novel has ever been written in English – and I don’t believe that to be true – there are few better candidates than American Pastoral, one of the great English-language novels of the second half of the 20th century and, frankly, ever. I am not sure I have ever read anything else that is so able to capture the change in generations that inevitably follows with rapid technological progress. The challenges of parents raising children in a society they no longer understand has never been better dramatized, as far as I know. There are so many resonant moments in the novel – even for me, a childless man – and one passage in particular stood out at the time as among the greatest paragraphs I have ever read. However, it was a long time ago and the file I used to keep of quotes from books and novels has been lost. (I still don’t know how I lost it, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, if there’s one thing I can say on the death of Philip Roth is that, if you love literature, and you have never read him, you owe it to yourself to read his work. The man had a way with words. And I cannot think of a better book to suggest than American Pastoral.

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