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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Roth On!

My legion of faithful reader (hi, Jeff!) recently commented (i.e. shouted through the wall that separates our offices) about my post on Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer. Jeff doesn't think that writing a review of a 26 year old novel exactly qualifies as cutting-edge blogging. What's next, Jeff asks, an analysis of the McKinley-Bryan debates?

So, bowing to public pressure, here's something to appease my fan base (hi, Jeff):

The Human Stain is maybe one of my least favorite Roth novels. But a "bad" Roth novel is like a bad episode of Buffy--still better than 98% of the stuff out there. The situations felt slightly forced and the didacticism, the making-an-important-point-ism was a little heavy-handed.

The Plot Against America I thought would be more of the same. When I heard the premise, I thought uh-oh, here is an "Important Novel" from a novelist who at his best writes important novels without telegraphing the fact. Well, as usual, I couldn't have been wronger. The Plot Against America is superb, and the first hundred and fifty pages are as good as anything Roth has ever written. Young Philip's philatelogical horror at and unwillingness to part with his Lindbergh stamp is a small detail that radiates significance without becoming anything as dull as a symbol. It is this use of detail that makes Roth Roth.

This novel achieves what the best science fiction does--it creates a new world, but it tells the story without getting bogged down in exposition: "here is a place that is both like our own reality and not like it. Let me tell you how." Roth manages to write a novel that would be as compelling if it were a "real" historical novel.

Roth on!