The infinite voices of Philip Roth

P7_Thirlwell_a_419880hAdam Thirlwell at the Times Literary Supplement:

Sure, Roth is an American novelist. But it was his European capers that allowed him to develop his sad, hysterical Americana voices, his novels of fantasy arguments. (In a lovely aside, Pierpont says that Roth’s initial title for The Counterlife had been The Metamorphosis – “but the title was already taken”.) He took the ordinary realist plots of James and Chekhov – the plots of repressed desire, of thwarted hope, of marriages gone bad and rancorous, of compromise and dead illusions – but then voiced the frenzied monologues and thought balloons of characters trapped in such situations. Or even put himself inside them, too, using his own name. The setting is grisaille, but the foreground is all cartoon. “I didn’t know how to control a non-realistic book”, he tells Pierpont, and that may be right – but he is not a pure realist, either. Metafiction and fantasia are also his fiction’s modes – it’s just that they are used for unusually deflationary purposes. Portnoy, say, with its famous punchline of an ending – “So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” – closes the narrative on a hazy seal of realism: it turns out that Portnoy’s monologue has only been in his head – for the high jinx of Portnoy’s voice may not be accurate to a real conversation. As a fantasy of consciousness, however, who can doubt it?

In fact, throughout his thirty-one books, Roth has been so much the novelist of riff and rant and self-conversation that I wonder if it really makes sense to see him as the author of discrete novels. In the retrospective of Pierpont’s book, his whole oeuvre begins to form something more like one great improvisatory frieze: not books so much as sequences – comic bits, crazed arguments, stalled paragraphs.

more here.