The Novel as Cultural Commentary?: Wolfe and Roth

I don’t really have anything deep to say about Phillip Roth or Tom Wolfe as novelists and cultural commentators, despite the title to this post, but I do have a couple of links.

As Phil noted earlier, THE FIRST ANNUAL TMN TOURNAMENT OF BOOKS concluded today with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas taking first prize (Ed must be happy).

The latest issue of Policy Review has reviews of two of the novels in the tournament. Tom Wolfe’s latest, I Am Charlotte Simmons, beat out Wake Up, Sir and Birds Without Wings before losing to the eventual champion. Rosecrans Baldwin was clearly a bit conflicted about IACS:

But, but, but . . . I’m being intentionally cruel because Wolfe is so often cruel and manipulative with his characters and I, for all their implausibility, loved them. I loved Charlotte Simmons. During a cross-Atlantic flight I read 400 pages without breaking once to pee. There are dozens of pages so rich and well told it’s remarkable they live in the same story. Wolfe owns frat parties. He owns big-school basketball, particularly the play on the court. He wrote an extremely ambitious novel that’s so often wrong it’s amazing the copy editor didn’t personally demand back Wolfe’s advance (Elmore Leonard should have been brought in to fix dialogue), yet I loved it and the book stuck with me for days.


Reviewing IACS in Policy Review, Peter Berkowitz grants some criticism of the novel:

The critics also complain that instead of creating characters who take on lives of their own, Wolfe traffics in types who remain trapped within their molds. Although less so than in Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, it is still true that in I am Charlotte Simmons Wolfe strains to fit into his world ordinary human decency and the reality of individuals, not heroic but also not pathetic or contemptible, but just muddling through. In fact some superstar jocks are intelligent; some dashing frat boys have a conscience; some college couples fall in love and marry; some student intellectuals believe in ideas as something more than an instrument of their overweening ambition; and some smart country girls come to campus and prove resourceful in defending themselves, socially and academically, however much they may remain inarticulate about their real predicament and the ambiguities of the freedom that the university bestows on them. To be sure, a novel is not a public hearing, and Wolfe is under no obligation, moral or aesthetic, to give all characters and sides equal time. But to achieve his famously professed goal for the novel, to show us who we are and to illuminate the world we actually inhabit, he must comply with the novel’s aesthetic imperative and recreate the complexity of the moral life.

But Berkowitz finds most of the shrill criticism to be unfounded:

In early twenty-first-century America, with the eyes and ears of a master journalist and employing the art of the popular novelist, Tom Wolfe has added another chapter to this large and long-running story. In its dramatization of how our universities miseducate the best fed, the finest clothed, and freest generation the world has ever seen, I am Charlotte Simmons captures an alarming dimension of the spirit of our times.

I recommend the Berkowitz review, as I do most of his writing, in its entirety as he has interesting discussions of the sexual revolution and the role of a university mixed in with his appraisal of the novel.

Phillip Roth’s latest, The Plot Against America, also did well in the tournament, battling Cloud Atlas for the championship. As luck would have it Ross Douthat reviews The Plot Against America in the current issue of Policy Review. Douthat appreciates Roth’s talent, even calling him “perhaps the nation’s finest living novelist – or at the very least, the finest active novelist,” but in the end finds that the novel fails in its task in one particular facet:

. . . the power of such passages is undone, again and again, by the creaking gears of the political “plot,” which is never convincing, never plausible, and which consistently undermines the drama of persecution unfolding in the streets and houses of Weequahic. Roth has set himself a nearly impossible task, it turns out – the creation of an American Diary of Anne Frank, you might say, whose pathos and pain is undercut at every turn by the reader’s knowledge that the whole thing is fantasy.

Douthat goes on to discuss Roth’s attempt to construct an alternate history where Lindbergh wins and brings anti-Semitism and the threat of fascism to America. He thinks Roth takes this part of the novel very seriously:

Indeed, Roth is so intent on rooting his “what-if” in the actual American past that he carefully avoids changing anything in his “alternate” timeline that takes place after the Lindbergh interregnum. Once the titular plot is foiled (and it does no injustice to the book to reveal that it is foiled), the Japanese still bomb Pearl Harbor (albeit a year later), the U.S. still wins World War II – and 20 years later, we learn in an aside midway through the book, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York is still assassinated while running for President. The great irruption of fascism into American life seems to leave no mark on Roth’s history – or, more aptly, he seems to be suggesting that the America of today is, in its essential being if not its actual past, a country that briefly flirted with the iron heel . . . and perhaps could flirt with it again.

This brings up what Douthat calls “the great literary debate of 2004.” Can The Plot Against America be seen as commentary on today’s politics; as criticism of the Bush Administration? Douthat says yes, but finds it utterly implausible, in fact, silly:

Such parallels are the stuff of high silliness, of course – but, then, so is The Plot Against America’s entire Lindbergh storyline, and it seems uncharitable to be too harsh on Roth’s literary anti-Bushism, especially in a year that has seen so many deliriously awful Bush-bashing efforts spilling off the bookstore shelves. If Roth intends his novel as a warning that “all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy” – as he claimed in his Times essay – then we can accept the wisdom of the admonition, surely, without agreeing that it applies particularly strongly to America in the early 1940s, let alone to America in the age of Bush.

I haven’t read the book so I am not one to judge, but I must say that I find it hard to take Roth seriously as a social or political critic when he refers to President Bush as “a man unfit to run a hardware store.” What does that make John Kerry then? Say what you will about his policies or ideas, or lack thereof, but it seems rather petty to deny the President his accomplishments.

I agree with Douthat’s closing:

Perhaps we should be grateful, in fact, that the hysteria of the last election season was transmuted, in some small way, into the veins of literary gold that run through Roth’s book. But veins, alas, are all they are. There have been a thousand anti-Bush books, and none so good as this one. But this is Philip Roth, and it is his business to be better.

So there you have it. A long post commenting on two authors none of whose books I have read! Ain’t blogging great?!

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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