Writers Pick Their Favorite Philip Roth Novel
Now that Roth has announced his retirement, we ask more than a dozen writers and critics—from Sheila Heti to William H. Gass—to look back on the entire output of the chronicler of fornication to see what their favorite Roth book is, and why.
I love the simplicity and perfection of The Ghost Writer. It's like a bonsai tree. It is so understated and every scene is memorable in a really natural and elegant way. Nothing grand happens on the outside, but seeing through the eyes of Zuckerman—tracing his disillusionment—is fascinating.
—Sheila Heti’s most recent book is How Should a Person Be? A Novel From Life.
The Dying Animal. Read out loud, in one evening, among a group of friends, everyone taking turns. Roth's sentences are so good, from Goodbye, Columbus to Nemesis, but the force and beauty of his late work merits special praise.
—Teju Cole is the author of Open City: A Novel.
I still think Roth was at his best with Portnoy's Complaint; it has the acidity without the bitterness, and the humor without the grotesque.
—Andrew Solomon’s new book is Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
The Ghost Writer, no question. Roth's mid-career masterpiece, the first of the Zuckerman books, is basically perfect in every way—that rare novel in which every sentence seems to matter. In the tension between young Zuckerman and E.I. Lonoff, as well as the fantastic farce revolving around Anne Frank, Roth gets the peculiar situation of the Jewish writer in America just right. My runner-up is American Pastoral, arguably the best novel about the American condition at the end of the twentieth century (with the possible exception of Underworld).
—Ruth Franklin is book critic and senior editor at The New Republic and the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.
My favorite Roth novel is The Counterlife—a product of his tricky postmodernist period, before the straightforward nostalgic-epics of the 1990s. The contrasting lives and fates Roth imagines for Nathan Zuckerman allow him to write fearlessly about family, art, Jewishness, sex—all his great themes.
—Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Why Trilling Matters.
Still Portnoy's Complaint. Made me a man. Or something. A person?
—Gary Shteyngart’s most recent novel is Super Sad True Love Story.
A storyteller of genius, with Melville, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner in his genes, Philip Roth has not in a 50-year-long career written a novel to which it is possible to be indifferent. He now claims to have retired, to have stopped writing fiction. If that is true, if the Prospero of Newark has indeed broken his staff, how fortunate it is that his most recent work, the 2010 novel Nemesis, turned out to be a masterpiece, worthy of a place on the bookshelf and in the heart next to the much longer and more complex works such as The Human Stain and American Pastoral. The story of a pestilence—the polio outbreak that devastates Newark in 1944—and of the lovingly narrated catastrophe that Nemesis visits on Bucky, the javelin-throwing, kindly and selfless gym teacher who sets himself against it and the God or gods who unleashed it, seems to complete the catalogue of plagues Roth had been assembling since 2004: the ever present twin scourges of American anti-Semitism and political extremism in The Plot Against America, disasters of war, specifically the Korean War in Indignation, and, finally that of polio, so easily prevented and so long misunderstood, leaving ravages that no one raised in the Salk vaccine era can perhaps fully envisage. Nemesis has the best of Roth: the inspired prose, descriptions of the workings of the disease that rival those of glove-making in American Pastoral, an unequalled rendering of life in America during the last year of World War II, and love scenes of extraordinary tenderness and luminosity.
—Louis Begley’s most recent novel is Schmidt Steps Back.
Has there ever been a cannier promoter of his own work than Philip Roth, announcing his retirement? Has any writer ever thought to apprise the world of his ceasing to write, thereby giving everyone an opportunity to lay on the accolades in the writer's lifetime, as if he were listening in on his own funeral? Not Bellow, not Updike, certainly no female writer I can think of. It takes a certain kind of moxie—and egomania—both of which Roth has always had in spades. All the same, it gives one a chance to survey the bookshelf (and more) of work. Portnoy, so beloved of male readers, failed to hold up for me when I taught it to a class several years back. Not as funny as I remembered, or perhaps the misogyny simply palls. And much as I admired the reach of American Pastoral, I've always thought Roth's true gifts lie with the vein of primal and often agonized self-disclosure—“You being you! And me! This me who is me being me and none other!” (last line of My Life As a Man)—that mark the first two novels in the Zuckerman trilogy. But there is also the icy valentine that is Patrimony. And what about the impeccable ear and mordantly funny voice, inflected all the same with a quality of seriousness, that was first introduced in Goodbye, Columbus? Oh my God, I'm a fan!
—Daphne Merkin is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of Dreaming of Hitler.
For me it's The Counterlife, that set of variations on the very idea of the self. It's the funniest—the brother and his blow jobs, the mohel on the El-Al flight. And the most terrifying, in its refusal to allow us any solid narrative ground, anything about that self that one can know for sure.
—Michael Gorra’s most recent book is Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece.
My favorite Roth novel is The Prague Orgy, for the same reason my favorite Bond film is On Her Majesty's Secret Service: it's a disorienting, balls-to-the-wall anomaly. Portnoy's Complaint is Roth's funniest, American Pastoral his most masterful, but The Prague Orgy is something we wouldn't see again: a compact, freewheeling novella that veers from stark to slapstick and feels like it was written under the influence of a single, sustained high. Not everybody can be Sean Connery and George Lazenby in one career, and that's why Roth is a master.
—Adam Mansbach’s new novel, Rage Is Back, comes out next month.
There’s nothing like Sabbath’s Theater, the novel that began Roth’s don’t-call-it-a-comeback comeback at 62, after a lazy decade in which he published only two books. It’s his bawdiest, most revelrously perverse novel, but that’s not why I love it: in fact, the insistent sex even bored me sometimes. But Mickey Sabbath, the savage, lost, and defrocked (in every sense) professor and puppeteer, turns out to be Roth’s richest character, and Sabbath’s Theater his deepest, most sustained and moving work.
—Chad Harbach is the author of the novel The Art of Fielding.
William H. Gass
I bet Roth changes his mind. I haven't read all of his books. Among the ones I have, The Counterlife has always struck me as his finest. It is a work of great energy, on issues of the most importance, in a manner highly original and ultimately brave. And it is dedicated to an octogenarian.
D. G. Myers
Although a new reader, just coming to Roth for the first time, could do worse than to start with The Ghost Writer—a nearly perfect novel—Roth is not at his best in seeking perfection of the work. Roth is at his best in his talking novels, his big going-off-in-all-directions digressive and discursive novels, none more so than American Pastoral, published in 1997. Perhaps the greatest American novel ever written on the problem that has beckoned to and bedelived the greatest American novelists—the problem of evil—its stature only grew on September 11, 2001. Unlike Don DeLillo (“There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists”) or Paul Auster (“if these two-bit explosions forced people to rethink their positions about life, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all”), Roth dramatizes the firm truth that terrorism is a “crime [that] could never be made right.” If recent events are any clue, American Pastoral will remain timely for many years to come.
—D. G. Myers is an associate professor at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University and the author of The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880.