June 17, 2009

Tales from the Completist: "The Ghost Writer," by Philip Roth

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth
The Ghost Writer (1979)
By Philip Roth

All right, I admit it -- I'm not the biggest fan of postmodernism, for a whole host of reasons that are sometimes related to each other, sometimes not: because of the movement's insistence, for example, that the only "true" artists are ones with advanced college degrees; because of its worship of cold irony and empty pop culture; because of its smug liberal platitudes and warm embrace of moral relativism; because every single famous example of it tends to be some intolerable novel about snot-nosed professors having pointless affairs with their 19-year-old students; because of how frighteningly easy it was for the Bush administration to use the mechanics of postmodernism to sell a form of quasi-fascism to an uneducated, celebrity-obsessed American public; because it was the artistic movement most favored by the generation right before mine (dirty f-cking hippies), so of course part of me is just going to naturally rebel against it; because my own generation (the so-called "Generation X") was especially good at postmodernism during its popular height in the 1990s, and if there's one group of people I hate more than dirty f-cking hippies, it's bitter paleocon-embracing hipster-douchebag Gen-Xers; and on and on and on in this vein ad nauseam.

But the longer I run my arts center, the more I'm coming to realize just how many of these issues are simply personal biases in my life that I should learn to get over; because as an arts critic, it's my job to know as much as possible about every artistic movement in history, and especially one so recent and that still so heavily influences even the brand-new novels coming out to this day. And so that's had me slowly starting to explore postmodernist literature whenever the mood strikes me, and especially looking at the beginning of the movement in the early 1960s (see for example my review earlier this year of Richard Yates' 1963 Revolutionary Road, widely considered one of the first postmodernist novels ever written), back when it was mostly an intellectual response to the Modernist movement right before even it, and not yet so co-opted and twisted by an all-pervasive consumerist-lifestyle advertising industry like what happened near the end of the movement's history. (Oh, and that's something else to know if you don't already, that I consider postmodernism to have officially died on September 11th, although had been going through its death throes for years before that, and that for the last decade the arts have been going through the beginning of a new movement that simply hasn't been named yet. The "Sincerist" movement, perhaps? With Michael Chabon and Radiohead being its first two truly great masters?)

Anyway, so all this has gotten me more and more interested recently in the work of Philip Roth; he's not only considered one of the titans of postmodernist literature (within such company as John Updike, Gore Vidal, Don DeLillo and a lot more), but I've actually read and loved one of his novels already, 2004's "alternative history" thriller and Bush slam The Plot Against America, making it more likely that I'm going to enjoy his earlier work as well. (This is compared to, say, Norman Mailer, whose work I also really need to sit down and comprehensively read one day, but in that case will be a navel-gazing chore I'm actually kind of dreading.) And hey, turns out that Roth has already created an easy framework for following along with his maturation over the years into a pillar of postmodernism; namely, within his overall prodigious ouevre, he has over the decades published a remarkable nine-book series known as the "Zuckerman" tales, named after the Nathan Zuckerman character who appears in them all (sometimes as the protagonist, sometimes as just a bystander), a character that Roth has very clearly identified in the past as an autobiographical stand-in for himself, and whose fate largely follows Roth's own over the years.

And in fact, as my smartass remark earlier about Mailer indicates, this is in general yet another common trait in postmodernism, a certain obsession with self-reflection and self-examination; when such a thing is done right, its fans say, it produces a kind of powerful emotional truth about the world impossible to gain in the arts otherwise, while critics complain that it more often than not leads simply to an unreadable mishmash of mental masturbation. For example, although not actually written until 1979, Roth's first Zuckerman book The Ghost Writer is set twenty years earlier in 1959, at the beginning not only of the postmodernist movement but also Roth's real-life career; and the Zuckerman we find in it is just starting out as well, a kid in his twenties with a series of attention-grabbing short stories now published in various prestigious literary journals, and with a favorable profile of him recently appearing in one of those "Hot New Authors" articles in one of those New Yorker type magazines. And this is yet something else important to understand about postmodernism -- that although we take it for granted now (and in fact is viewed by many now as an antiquated process to be gotten rid of), it was the postmodernist writers who were the very first to come of age within this Modernist-created academically-based strict hierarchal definition of artistic success (stories in respected journals out of college, which lead to full books from respected presses, followed by retrospectives at respected museums, with plenty of grants and fellowships and awards and workshops and honorary degrees thrown in along the way), a path considered the height of sophistication right around the Kennedy years when so many of the most famous postmodernists all got their starts.

All this newfound press, then, has brought Zuckerman to the attention of his literary hero, a writer named E.I. Lonoff who seems to be sort of a combination of Saul Bellows and J.D. Salinger; entering old age in the late 1950s, he is one of the only Jewish-American authors in history so far to gain a national audience for his work, which has driven him to a point of almost no contact with the general public, making it that much more special when one receives an invitation to dine at his rural upstate New York farmhouse, the one he shares with his WASPy New England goyim wife, much to the consternation of all the Manhattan-dwelling Jewish intellectuals who were once his pre-war peers and friends. This is exactly the kind of dining invitation Zuckerman receives at the beginning of The Ghost Writer; and then the novel itself is not much more than a record of his evening there, as Zuckerman has a series of conversations with Lonoff, witnesses a fight between he and his wife, drinks too much to be able to get home safely, and ends up spending the night on Lonoff's sofa while thinking very intensely about a bunch of stuff.

And in fact this is yet again another hallmark of postmodernism, the habit within so many of these novels for almost nothing to actually "happen," which again as I've mentioned here in the past comes with both its defenders and detractors; fans say that within postmodernism it is the "inner lives" of the characters that are most important, and that contemporary literature no longer needs the soap-opera plot machinations of the Victorian Age in order to be a great story, while critics say that this is merely a reflection of postmodernism's tendency for all its most famous authors to be boring ol' do-nothing professors themselves (as opposed to Modernist authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald who went around driving ambulances and fighting bulls and, you know, doing stuff), and that all this merely adds to the navel-gazing masturbation the movement is already so guilty of. Or in other words, the movement's ever-increasing frequency over the years towards confessional novels about whiny authors writing confessional novels about whiny authors writing confessional novels, which is where we get the postmodernist term "metafiction," which critics claim is simply a fancy word for "circle jerk."

And so what are these things that Zuckerman ends up drunkenly pondering on Lonoff's sofa in the middle of the night? Well, that's a very interesting question, really the main point of reading The Ghost Writer to begin with, because it turns out that it's three main things that Zuckerman spends the novel mostly thinking about, all of them having to do with modern Judaism in a post-Nazi world...

--First, he spends a lot of time pondering the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" style fight between the Lonoffs that he witnessed earlier in the evening, and what it might say about the natural complications that come with any marriage between a Jew and a Gentile in mid-20th-Century America, no matter what the circumstances;

--Then he gets to thinking about his latest short story, a true recollection of a money-based neighborhood fight he once witnessed as a child, which even pre-publication has turned into his most popular story among those who have now read it, but that has inspired horror among all his Jewish relatives, convinced that the story will do nothing but bolster the anti-Semitic view of Jews as greedy, finance-obsessed shysters;

--Which then finally gets him thinking about the beautiful, mysterious eastern-European writing protege of Lonoff's who had also joined them for dinner earlier in the night, and pondering what the world would be like if she turned out to be none other than Anne Frank herself, who somehow miraculously managed to survive the concentration camps at the end of World War Two, but whose identification was lost during the chaos of it all, and of why it might be that a young woman in that position might actually prefer to stay anonymous after the war is over, and after her teenaged diary has become such a lynchpin for modern postwar Jewish/Gentile relations.

And that really gets us to the heart of The Ghost Writer, and why it is that Roth is widely considered one of the most important Jewish-American authors in our country's history; because as Roth himself so indelicately reminds us in this book, before the rise of postmodernism and writers exactly like him, the most famous Jewish author in history had actually been a dead 15-year-old girl, and the most important thing she ever wrote was that despite the Holocaust, she still found herself with a desperate desire to get laid. It's very easy to forget this, but as little as 50 years ago, a term like "Jewish humor" was most likely to conjure up racist images from vaudeville and folktales, big-nosed Shylocks greedily rubbing their hands together in anticipation of yet another bulging bag of precious gold, versus the images now of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld and wry urban wit like so many of us think of these days when hearing the term. And it's no accident that the world changed this way, either, but was instead due to the deliberate efforts of writers exactly like Roth, an entire generation of young post-Holocaust Jews who dared to openly discuss the normal day-to-day conflicts found within the Jewish community, without worrying as their parents did that such a thing would simply contribute to another future round of yellow stars and gas chambers.

It's an incredibly easy thing to forget when reading these seminal books in our contemporary times, ironically because of these writers ending up being so successful at what they were trying to accomplish; so successful, in fact, that much of what is played for serious drama in these early novels has ended up over the decades getting played for laughs by a whole generation of Jewish artists after them. For a good example, look at how with just a little re-wording, what turns out to be the most tension-filled scene in The Ghost Writer can easily start sounding like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry gets caught making out during Schindler's List...

"Oh, I see -- my son the writer now feels the need to write stories that please Herr Joseph Goebbels."

"Ma!"

"Oh, never mind me. What do I know? I'm just the mother of a self-hating anti-Semite, that's all."

"Ma, will you stop it?"

"Oh, I'll stop. I'll stop as soon as God whisks me off to hell for bringing a self-hating anti-Semite into the world. Strike me down now, God! Strike down this unworthy mother of a self-hating anti-Semite right this second!"

"MA!!!"

It's a testament to Roth, really, that what he means to be serious drama in The Ghost Writer now reads so unintentionally funny; it's a testament to how successful he and the other Jewish writers of the postmodernist age all were, that they could create a situation where even most non-Jews now have at least a basic knowledge of and appreciation for the ebb and flow of normal Jewish life, versus such give-and-takes in the past simply reinforcing the pervasive anti-Jewish sentiments so rampant around the planet before the Holocaust. It's essentially a normalization process, which the Jews of Roth's parents' generation were terrified of, because it was impossible for them to picture a world where Jewish life would ever seem "normal" in the eyes of most non-Jews; so what an astounding feat that these postmodernists of Roth's generation actually pulled it off, to the extent that a show like Seinfeld half a century later could end up being as thoroughly embraced by mainstream Christian America as it was.

So when all is said and done, maybe I actually have been a little too tough on postmodernism in general; although I still argue that the movement's excesses in the second half of its history are rightly worthy of scorn and derision, which also like I said may just mostly be my way of naturally rebelling against what was most popular with the generation of artists right before mine. In any case, I'm for sure extremely glad that I've decided to take on Roth's Zuckerman stories in the first place, and am now highly looking forward to the second book in the series, 1981's even more self-referential Zuckerman Unbound. As always, I'll be posting my thoughts about that here as soon as they're ready.

Read even more about The Ghost Writer: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:19 PM, June 17, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |