Friday, May 20, 2005

That Philip Roth is Real Nasty Minded 

Like Thomas Pynchon and Saul Bellow, Philip Roth is one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to get around to and have suffered a vague, free floating guilt about not reading. About ten years ago I did try to read Portnoy’s Complaint, but the feverish masturbation fantasies of a young Jewish man in the 50s with a suffocating mother held little appeal for me so I did something I rarely ever do – I gave up and stopped reading it after 50 or so pages. I didn’t really think of him again until he dumped his wife, the actress Claire Bloom. My aunt lives in Connecticut and Claire Bloom was there on a theatrical tour when the marriage ended. One of her best friends took in Claire Bloom, who was absolutely a wreck, and nursed who through the crisis, and so I had a personal, although extremely distant connection to the whole affair that reignited my interest. Philip Roth ended their marriage in such a disgraceful way that it confirmed my feeling that this guy was a total creep. I couldn’t separate the art from the artist and decided that I wasn’t going to go out of my way to read his work. According to Claire Bloom, Philip Roth broke up with her by giving her his new book to read. She curled up in bed one morning with a cup of tea all, all excited to read it, and with creeping horror realized that one of the characters, a shrewish, aging actress, was obviously her. He then tried to bill her $150 an hour for the time he had helped her memorize her scripts. What a guy. (Claire Bloom was no innocent victim, though. When they moved in together Philip Roth insisted that her 18 year old daughter from a previous marriage could not live with them and made her choose between them. She chose her new boyfriend. She rationalized the decision to herself because she felt she was getting old and needed to grab on to love while she could and that he daughter was 18 and adult and could take care of herself.)

And by the way, WHY DO WOMEN DO THIS SORT OF THING? Is it some sort of biological imperative? It’s a common enough occurrence for a woman to put the needs and desires of her new man in front of her own children from a previous relationship that it would lead me to believe it is. I wouldn't put it past Mother Nature, that old bitch. Look what goes in a lion pride, where a new leader of the pride will systematically round up all the nursing cubs, products of his defeated rival, and EAT them. When a nursing lioness loses her cubs abruptly she goes into estrus, and so the new lion king gets to impregnate the lionesses with his DNA, the odor of all their dead cubs still on his breath. Gross.)

I was discussing the documentary The Weather Underground with one of my colleagues, and he suggested that I read American Pastoral, so I decided to give Philip Roth another try. In the novel, Swede Levov, an all around nice guy home town athletic hero, serves his country in WWII and then settles down to run the successful family glove making business that his penniless, immigrant Jewish forefathers had created from nothing. He marries the former Miss New Jersey and they move to bucolic New Jersey to raise their adorable little girl, Merry. Seemingly overnight in some sort of Kafkaesque transformation, his daughter, the apple of his eye, becomes a hateful, 6’0, fat, hulking, slovenly, ideology spewing, radical Vietnam War protester. In a very Weathermen act, she plants a bomb in the local store, and the bomb inadvertently kills the town doctor. She disappears and goes underground, and Swede’s life is destroyed. He tries to go on with life, but can’t stop obsessing over his daughter or trying to find her whereabouts. He refuses to believe that she murdered on her own volition; instead, he believes that she must have been brainwashed by a radical group, or there must have been something that he did to make her this way.

While he searches for her, he analyzes his past, desperately trying to find the one pivotal moment that turned his daughter against him, the instance where it all could have possibly gone wrong. The only event that the Swede could think of, and he replays it again and again in his mind, is what destroyed Philip Roth’s credibility for me. When I read it I thought, “This man doesn’t know females at all!” The scene take place when his daughter is eleven, when they’re driving home together in the car after trip to the beach.

“..lolling against his bare shoulder, she had turned up her face, and, half innocently, half audaciously, precociously playing the grown-up girl, said, “Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother.” Sun-drunk himself, voluptuously fatigued from rolling all morning with her in the heavy surf, he had looked down to see that one of the shoulder straps of her swimsuit had dropped over her arm, and there was her nipple, the hard red bee bite that was her nipple... He lost all his vaunted sense of proportion, drew her to him with one arm, and kissed her stammering mouth with the passion that she had been asking him for all month long while knowing only obscurely what she was asking for.”

Sorry, Philip Roth, but you just failed Psychology 101. Little girls often ask to kiss or even marry their fathers, but WHEN THEY’RE 4, right on track with the Electra complex, not eleven years old, the cusp of puberty. Every girl I know at that age is writhing in self consciousness, and would rather DIE than ask their father such a thing, unless they were molested and had had their sexual boundaries blown out of the water by some other horrible sexual violation.

Actually, he fails pretty miserably in all of his female characterizations - and please don't try to tell me that they're just supposed to be allegorical. Most of the women seemed like, at the very best, ungrateful bitches, and at the worst, monsters who are agents of men's destruction. He seems to resent beautiful women and their sexual power over him - especially women's power to betray and ruin men by letting some their rival have sex with them, like Swede's wife does with his loathed neighbor.

In a truly repellent scene, a young woman, a mysterious associate of Merry who taunts him with her knowledge of his daughter’s whereabouts, tries to seduce him in a hotel room where she has lured him with the promise of information about his daughter. When he rebuffs her advances, she splays herself naked out on the bed and says, “…you’re such a brave man you won’t even look at it, shut your eyes and step right up and smell it. Step right up and take a whiff. The swamp. It sucks you in.” To me, this expresses the real sum of all Philip Roth’s fears in the novel. Not an America gone mad with the war, or the punishment that befalls a Jew who has assimilated and forgotten his roots, but that old bugbear, the vagina dentata. The swamp, it sucks you in.

Is it really as simple as all that? Is that what it all really boils down to for him? The fear of being devoured and destroyed by female sexuality? Really? What a nasty world view.

Dang. I had a comment that I'd thought about and considered worthy of posting, and blogger ate it.

This is Meg, and I'll reconstruct it tomorrow.
i never ever had a fear of "vagina dentata" or even knew what it was until i saw that picture you linked to. now it's all i can think about. i'm afraid my girlfriend will get angry one day and use her kegels for evil instead of good. oh, and the teeth!
I had a very delightful introduction to Philip Roth. I read "The Conversion of the Jews," and I was so impressed. It's a great story of honesty in youth. So I went to the bookstore, picked up his latest novel, and got in the long checkout line. Before it was time to purchase, I realized the novel I was holding was all about a porn photographer's exploits. Hmm. Not was I was really looking for.
I always knew that I wasn't interested in Roth but I didn't know why. Now I do, thanks.
I remember reading about "vagina dentatis" in Carlos Fuentes' Christopher Unborn. In remembering that, I was wondering what your opinion of Mr. Fuentes was?
Nice people write horrible books. Most women are bitches and most men are pricks.

Actuality, indignation, truth.

If you're offended by him, you're shallow.

Cheers then.
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