I have said it before, and I will say it again: If you aren’t reading the New Pantagruel you should be. Being absent minded and easily distracted, I regularly forget to check out this unique publication and then kick myself when I eventually click over. So this is just as much a reminder to myself as a recommendation to you.
Anyway, the reason for this admonishment is my recent review of their latest issue. There one will find an interesting review of one of the most talked about books around the lit blogosphere: Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America. After an extended discussion of the novel’s successes and flaws, Randy Boyagoda offers a harsh conclusion:
The novelâ€™s most telling flaw, however, is that its main focus blurs when it could be sharpest. Roth has devoted 45 years, and thousands of pages, to tearing down simplistic ideas about Jewish identity, taking on all comers at all times with muscular style and a cutthroat intellect. In testing the Jewish claim to the American experiment in the most difficult context he can imagine, however, The Plot plops. Halfway through the novel, we come across a classic Philip Roth phenomenon: a two-page single paragraph meditation on the double meaning of Americans â€œbeing Jews.â€ Through punishing prose, Roth rejects God, rejects synagogue, rejects race, rejects ancient language, rejects schmaltzy ethnic pride â€” rejects most every imaginable source and standard for a peopleâ€™s self-definition, save one. At the end of this streaking comet of a passage, this is where we land: â€œTheir being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American.â€
Is this Philip Roth, or Dr. Phil?
To be Jewish is to be yourself? To be American is to be yourself? No further commitments, obligations, virtues, histories, traditions needed? Just be yourself? At the core of this moving, horrifying book, the intellectual formulation of Jewish and American identity proves to be a puddle of drippy, 21st century identity-speak. In vain does one search this late fiction from a great American writer, from perhaps the great Jewish American writer, for finer knowledge of what American Jews drew on when they were expelled from their innocent Garden State, into a stars-and-stripes-and-swastikas desert.
Others might disagree with Boyagoda, but he offers interesting criticism and takes the work and the author seriously. I enjoyed it despite not having read Roth (perhaps I should . . .).