Waxing Roth

The Library of America takes a shine to the author of Portnoys Complaint

And then—wishing her to be dead but feeling powerless to effect it—as in some deus ex machina plopped into some lousy play, she died in a car accident in 1967, and Roth—rigorously moral, strenuously serious Philip Roth—found himself beside her casket speaking to her in the most un-Jamesian tones, yet in the most glorious relief: "You're dead, and I didn't have to do it." You can trace Roth's conversion from Moral Realist to Brash Liberato to the '60s if you want to, but I prefer to point to Roth's casket remark, which shattered in one fell swoop his pretensions to the moral rectitudes of his early fiction and made for a true letting go—after that, Roth accepted that his life was absurd and his own conscience filled with murderous desire. (You get the full fictional treatment of these tortuous events in 1974's My Life As a Man, one of Roth's greatest novels, which Library of America will republish in a future volume.)

The changes in form and subject traced in these two volumes, from 1959's Goodbye, Columbus in the first volume to 1972's The Breast in the second, show a writer transforming himself with the daring swiftness and responsiveness to events that recalls, say, what the Beatles went through from 1964's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to side two of 1970's Abbey Road. What's fascinating is that his transformations didn't stop there, that (as Don DeLillo once wrote of Harold Brodkey) Roth went on to "one of the great fictional journeys of American literature," into the marvelous metafictional contortions of the Zuckerman novels and the magisterial late flowering of his 1990s neo-realist novels. The work collected in Library of America's first two volumes, as fascinating and as accomplished as they are, just begin the story.

PHILIP ROTH: STORIES AND NOVELS 1959-1962 AND NOVELS 1967-1972; LIBRARY OF AMERICA SERIES. HARDCOVER, $35 EACH.

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