Reviewing the Review: September 21 2008

History Postmodernism
David Gates on Philip Roth's new Indignation, on the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review:

How does Roth get away with this stuff? The cliffhanger, the obscure portent, the withholding of essential information? He doesn’t use these antiquated devices ironically.

Well, that's what I've been saying. He doesn't get away with it.

In my opinion, Philip Roth is the Oliver Stone of fiction. We are drawn to him because he creates strong characters and has a knack for plots and situations that catch our interest. But he is hopelessly heavy-handed, single-minded and irritatingly consistent. He's been writing the same story since the 1960s, showing no growth or maturity and never developing an interest in the world outside East Coast USA. I have sometimes enjoyed his novels, but he's written about morally constipated and sexually excited Jewish writers from New Jersey so many times that I just can't take the annual production anymore. I wish Roth showed any type of philosophical expansion in his nearly fifty-year career, any sense of gained wisdom. His first book was his best, and I do not think Philip Roth, despite his impressive aura, is a genius. And I don't think his next five books in the next five years are going to change that judgment either.

Do I call Paul Auster a genius? I do in months with the letter "R", strangely enough, though I don't know why this is. The author of the new Man In The Dark gets a sound thrashing today by Tom LeClair for repeating himself in book after book:

After, say, 10 books, maybe novelists should be retested, like accident-prone senior citizens renewing their driver's licenses.

Well, yeah, and that's exactly what I've been saying about Philip Roth.

A novel called Goldengrove by highly respected literary critic Francine Prose is reviewed by Leah Hager-Cohen, who doesn't seem convinced:

In one scene, he and Nico make a pilgrimage to the hill where a 19th-century doomsday cult gathered to wait for the rapture. This is a real historical event, called, rather wonderfully, the Great Disappointment. But the scene disappoints ...

It's a tough day for novelists. I'll check out Goldengrove anyway. I've heard good things about Home by Marilynne Robinson, but A. O. Scott's lush rave review somehow puts me off. Too much of this:

"Home" is a book full of doubleness and paradox, at once serene and volcanic, ruthless and forgiving. It is an anguished pastoral, a tableau of decency and compassion that is also an angry and devastating indictment of moral cowardice and unrepentant, unacknowledged sin.

Wow. I haven't even opened the book yet and I'm already bored.

Maybe a novelist is better off getting panned by Tom LeClair or Leah Hager-Cohen than praised like this by A. O. Scott.

On the political side, today's book review contains a satisfying piece by Christopher Hitchens about Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism by French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy. Hitchens and Levy stand on opposite sides of several ideological fences, but Hitchens seems to respect his French peer enough to award him a gracious and thoughtful evaluation.

Historian James J. Sheehan likes the new World War II book Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower (I think this must be the 4,317th new book about World War II published this year, or is it 4,318?). But Sheehan takes a strange swipe at a different book, the only book about World War II published this year that offered an original perspective instead of the same old heroism and nostalgia and bathos. It shows you how influential Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke is that Sheehan's last paragraph discusses Human Smoke instead of the book he's reviewing. Here's how he concludes:

"Hitler's Empire" is a useful antidote to the argument -- most recently advanced in Nicholson Baker's "Human Smoke" -- that World War II was neither necessary nor just. While we should never underestimate or forget the appalling cost, Mazower's eloquent and instructive book reminds us what the world would have been like if Hitler's enemies had been unwilling or unable to pay the price of defeating him.

Cue the fireworks. But Mazower's book seems to repeat many of the historical fallacies Nicholson Baker laid out in "Human Smoke", or at least it seems to in Sheehan's telling:

... Even the murderous answer to the "Jewish question," the empire's most persistent and pervasive goal, emerged slowly and unevenly.

Actually, as Baker documents, the Nazis tried hard for several years to arrange Jewish emigration to any nation in the world that would accept it, so it may not make sense to refer to the Holocaust as the empire's "most persistent and pervasive goal". This is an example of why we need more investigative World War II history books like Human Smoke, and fewer repackagings of the same old bedtime stories about how bad the bad guys were and how good the good guys were, which is what Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe appears to be.
This article is part of the series Reviewing the New York Times Book Review. The next post in the series is Reviewing the Review: September 28 2008. The previous post in the series is Reviewing the David Foster Wallace Obituaries: September 14 2008.
8 Responses to "Reviewing the Review: September 21 2008"

I have read one Paul Auster book, "Leviathan". I liked it but with some reservations. I am going to go back and read his earlier stuff.

Interestingly, both Auster and Philip Roth are very popular in France (in translation).

by Dan on

I'd thought that When She Was Good was Roth's first (and one of his very best) but you are correct. Goodbye Columbus predates it. I recommend When She Was Good (there are NO JEWS in this book - what was he thinking?), Goodbye Columbus, and Portnoy for laughs. Otherwise, I'd say don't waste your time on Roth.

Interesting aside - Baldwin's best book, in my opinion, is Giovanni's Room - and there are NO BLACK PEOPLE in it (including the first-person narrator). What's going on, here?

Mike - read The New York Trilogy, by Auster. Also Moon Palace.

by Kevin on

If I were the type of person to have heroes, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett would be at the top of the list.

Jamelah, Caryn and Levi would probably be up there, too.

by rubiao on

Hitchens is on the opposite side of every issue. He could have been reviewing himself and he would have disagreed with most of his positions.

And I must say, the Reviewing the Review book of the year is Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke. Every Reviewing the Review that mentions it makes me want to read it more and more.

by bud on

I winced when I read the Auster review.

Your bloviations on P.Roth reveal your youth and lack of critical reading experience. Please grow up.

by Levi Asher on

Louis --

Youth, ha.

I may be wrong but it's not because I'm young.

by Daniel on

L—
I agree to some extent that Roth too often beats a horse that very, very tired. But his better novels are really much better than I think you give credit – 'American Pastoral' is excellent, for one, and 'The Ghost Writer' is wonderfully tight.

I also really disagree that he has had a static approach to these horse-whip issues over the years. One only has to look at the different formal models Roth is using to see him attempting new insights into very basic human themes like sexuality, paternity, and violence.

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