Cultural Story of the Year: Zuckerman Silenced
12/30/2013 - 19:00
Roth calls it quits at 80. Photo courtesy Reuters
Roth calls it quits at 80. Photo courtesy Reuters

It came as a shock to fans and critics alike when Philip Roth, at the age of 80, announced he would henceforth cease and desist from the writing of fiction. After all, how could a writer who, for more than 50 years, had devoted his life to producing page after page of novels and stories that have never ceased to astonish — no one could break taboos and raise a ruckus like Roth; few could match his engagement with the Jewish experience in America or his dark wisdom in grappling with prejudice — wake up one morning and unplug the writing function from his computer as well as from his brain? 

Personally, I’m in denial. Or is it just that I have read too many Roth novels narrated by his fictional writers of fiction? I’m thinking of Nathan Zuckerman (as in the “Zuckerman Bound” trilogy and “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain” and others) and even “Philip Roth” (as in “Operation Shylock” and in “The Plot Against America”). And these aren’t the only Rothian literary alter egos who make up the characters that seem to mirror the authentic Philip Roth, in any number of details of biography and sensibility. Perhaps one of those obsessed and obsessive stand-in characters for the “real-life” Philip Roth would retire. But even in that regard, I’m not convinced.   

Yes, I admit, at the moment no new books by Roth (or any of his fictional alter egos) appear to be on the publishing horizon. But that may be the slyest part of this so-called retirement: we will now just have to content ourselves with reading — and rereading — the extensive oeuvre that Philip Roth has already given us. Haven’t started yet? As the doctor says at the end of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”  

Diane Cole

american jewish fiction, Philip Roth