As most of the world knows by now, Philip Roth has announced that he is retiring as a novelist. Roth is one of a very select group who can be considered for title of the greatest American novelist, and his list of awards is impressive, but I don’t want to write yet another obituary of Roth’s career. Instead, I’d like to talk about how his novels might be appreciated by teenagers.
Although Roth has had a (perhaps deserved) reputation as a bit of a cranky old man for the last decade or two, his career is bookended by novels that speak directly to the concerns of young people, just out of their teens and trying to find their way in the world, what these days we appear to be calling “new adult fiction.”
His debut, Goodbye Columbus (1959), is one of the most moving portrayals of a first romance and first sexual experience I’ve ever read. The characters are a bit older than we might expect in such a novel these days (just out of college), but if he had written it today, surely they would have been teens or very young adults. Then, in the last seven years of his career, Roth published six novels, three of which–Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007), and The Humbling (2009)–address the predictable concerns of a 70-something: the various failures of the body leading up to its ultimate failure. But much more surprising and more successful were The Plot Against America (2004), Indignation (2008), and Nemesis (2010). Though death is still a vital concern in these novels, Roth approaches it from an entirely different and surprising viewpoint: the intense anger, indignation, and confusion of a young man encountering death for the first time. That Roth maintained his ability to enter into the mind of characters barely out of their teens and accurately depict the confusion and terror of young adulthood, while something of a shock, is nevertheless undeniable.
The Plot Against America got most of its press for its Alternate History hijinks (Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election, with horrific consequences), but largely ignored at the time was the young narrator (in fact just a child) and how well Roth captured this child’s perspective on the world events surrounding him. Indignation may be Roth’s only novel with an actual teen protagonist, and it is just a stunning piece of work for how well the then-75-year-old Roth captured the anger and righteousness of a 19-year-old. And Nemesis is centered around another such young man, 23-year-old Bucky Cantor, and his uneasy transition from youth to adulthood: his first full understanding of world’s (and perhaps God’s) inherent unfairness; the seemingly small but nevertheless crucial moral decisions of a person with new adult responsibilities; the overwhelming sense that no one has properly prepared him for this new life as an adult; and of course new found sexual freedom.
I would whole-heartedly recommend any of these four books to teens. In fact, I wrote a review of Nemesis for this blog when the book came out, which for reasons I can’t recall now I chose not to submit. In any case, these novels squarely address the concerns of young people, and all four are written in Roth’s stunningly lucid prose, and infused with his always reliable sense of humor.
In between his debut, and these final novels, Roth wrote some twenty novels, and while I certainly wouldn’t recommend all of them to teens (some of the more heavily meta-fictional titles, despite my deep love for them, get a bit arcane for teen purposes), there are several that I should mention. But first, a word about sex. Roth’s two great themes as a novelist, both present in practically everything he ever wrote, were sex and Judaism. His lifelong struggle to define and individuate himself in relationship to his Jewish identity led to a tremendously deep and thoughtful set of ideas about culture, religion, family, and more. And, fortunately, for our purposes, it is also a theme which resonates strongly with many older teens as they work to decide whether to keep the faith of their parents, abandon faith entirely, or something in between.
I have a feeling that Roth’s other theme is what might lead some librarians and teachers to be a bit squeamish about handing one of his novels to a teen. Roth was deeply interested not just in portraying sex (many of his novels are quite explicit), but in examining the values, neuroses, power-dynamics and more that we as a culture have hung on sexuality. To those who might worry about this aspect of his novels, I’d like to remind you that sex is probably one of the single most important topics for most teenagers (especially boys).
This point was driven home to great hilarity by Daniel Handler at ALA Annual this year, but since I wasn’t at his talk, I’ll let one of our reviewers, Sarah Flowers, describe his presentation:
Daniel Handler was one of the speakers at the 2012 Booklist Books for Youth Forum at the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim in June 2012. The panel, consisting of Handler, Jon Scieszka, Andrew Smith, and Michael Grant, was entitled “Guy Writers Talk Guy Readers.” Handler was the last to speak, and when he stepped up to the microphone, he began reading, without any preamble, what had to be (to borrow a phrase from Tom Lehrer) “the juiciest, spiciest, raciest” excerpt from a book it has ever been my pleasure to hear in a room full of librarians.
Seriously, everyone sat there trying not to make eye contact with anyone else. When Handler stopped reading, he looked up and said, “So, I’m supposed to talk about what guys like to read,” and kind of motioned toward his script. The room erupted in relieved laughter. The excerpt, by the way, was from Oscar Hijuelos’ 1989 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Handler’s point, which he graphically illustrated with this reading, was that teenage boys are interested in sex. He talked about the fact that most YA literature is fairly light on the details of sex—which, he said, is something that teenage boys (and also girls) are interested in. Those racy parts are value-added for teens, even though just a little of that is often enough to render a book objectionable in the eyes of many adults. He gave some examples from his own teenage years of the kinds of books he read and how he looked for those sexy (racy, spicy, juicy) bits. He also talked about the fact that many of those books he found were adult books, because that’s where he could find the sexy parts.
With Handler’s very important point in mind, the other Roth novels I would single out for teen readership are Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), The Breast (1972), and the first two Zuckerman books, The Ghost Writer (1979) and Zuckerman Unbound (1981). From its dramatic entrance onto the literary scene to today, Portnoy’s Complaint has had many detractors, but for my money it is still as funny as it ever was, and its obsessions–a young man’s burgeoning awareness of his sexuality, faith (or lack of it), and need to carve out an identity separate from his family (read: mother)–as vital, particularly for teens. The Breast is a minor work, through and through, but could be a great book to give to teens who have been assigned Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” It is rarely recognized that Kafka meant much of his work, including “The Metamorphosis” to be comic, and The Breast, in which protagonist David Kepesh awakes to find himself metamorposed into a giant breast, brings out the humor of Kafka’s work better than any lit teacher could. Finally, the first two Zuckerman books bring us back to “new adult fiction” as a young Nathan Zuckerman tries and succeeds at becoming a successful novelist, only to realize that no one understands his art. These are highly self-referential books, and as such, are a nice launching pad for readers who might want to sample some of Roth’s middle period of heavy metafiction–especially Operation Shylock (1993) and The Counterlife (1986). But at the same time, they function straightforwardly as wonderful, fast-moving, strongly characterized novels of an intelligent, if still immature, young man, just out of college and living in New York.
Roth is not for everyone’s tastes: he especially has a way of getting on the nerves of female readers pretty frequently. But give a couple of these books to the right teen, and you might just help create a lifelong love affair with one of the greatest prose writers in American history.