This is my best friend Justin, who you may know as The Chubby Vegetarian. He's not just an expert on a brunoise or a bocconcini--he also knows about books! I asked to him to write about a favorite author, story, or poem, and he came up with the essay that follows, "Philip Roth Ruined Fiction."
Philip Roth Ruined Fiction
My reading life was once simple: I read some flimsy lit that friends suggested, various short stories, and predictably, loved J.D. Salinger. I thoroughly enjoyed the written word and the escape it provided. This was before I was led down a long and confusing road that started with Portnoy’s Complaint.
Quite simply, Philip Roth ruined fiction for me.
Alexander Portnoy, the anti-hero of Philip Roth’s masterpiece, could be a grown-up version of Holden Caulfield, who everyone knows as the whiny but likable prep-school punk from TheCatcher in the Rye. Both charters seem to want to be understood, and they both desire to have a better understanding of themselves. To achieve this, both Portnoy and Caulfield both talk endlessly to a psychiatric professional about their own perceived realities and maladies. I was comfortable with Portnoy’s Complaint, because it felt familiar having already been a fan of Catcher. So I moved on. I wanted more Roth in my life.
I picked up Goodbye,Columbus, Roth’s collection of short stories. “The Conversion of the Jews” may be the most compelling short story ever written. It’s actually a quite simple story about being ignored and then heard...loudly. It’s a must-read! Roth’s writing is energizing. After Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus, I knew I was hooked. And that’s when things got weird.
Many of Roth’s adult characters are unlikeable, to say the least. Take Micky Sabbath, the main character in Roth’s 1995 book Sabbath’s Theater, for example. We watch this guy fumble through his late-in-life hijinks as he considers whether to go ahead and end it all. I mean this guy is a far cry from the confused but somehow strong young men from the first two Roth novels. You had hope that those guys would turn out okay. They certainly weren’t phonies. The prose is so creative and beautifully written that the reader cannot help but follow Sabbath down an unfortunate back road and watch him as he implodes.
Next, I was introduced to the Swede via American Pastoral. He had everything going for him, but Roth couldn’t let that last. We are introduced to the black sheep of the family, his daughter Merry, who helps him fall apart. Parts of the book read like a well-written manual on how to make gloves. In fact, since I read carefully, I’ll bet I could cut and sew you a nice pair of gloves right now if I had a piece of kid leather in front of me.
Things were not so simple anymore. They were dark, but by this point, I had adjusted to Roth’s darkness. I breezed through the Kepesh novels. They seemed somehow lighter. Then OperationShylock did me in. This book is written by Philip Roth about a character named Philip Roth who is confused for another guy named, you guessed it, Philip Roth. Maddening! I put it down, and then picked it up, and then put it down again. I’ve not read a Roth novel since, although I should give him another shot.
Roth’s prose is so exacting, creative, and exciting that he makes you care about his unlikeable and strangely flawed characters. He makes every other book I pick up seem, well, less--less exciting, less revealing, less riveting. Nowadays, I stick to nonfiction works about Johnny Cash or JoeStrummer. I glean bits of wisdom from books about running and magazines about cooking. So, thanks a lot, Phil. You are so good that you make everyone else look bad.
-Justin Fox Burks
Read more from Justin Fox Burks at thechubbyvegetarian.com, and keep an eye out for his cookbook, which will be on shelves in 2013.