Award-winning author Philip Roth has made a career of confronting the heartbreaking dissolution of relationships, the absurdity of sexual neuroses, and the downside of his own literary fame. Many of his readers believe that Roth has been merely writing his own story for nearly fifty years. However, the author refuses to offer such speculators any simple answers, saying of his characters, “It's all me. Nothing is me."
Philip Roth's long and celebrated career has been something of a thorn in the side of the writer. As it is for so many, fame has been the proverbial double-edged sword, bringing his trenchant tragic-comedies to a wide audience, but also making him a prisoner of expectations and perceptions. Still, since 1959, Roth has forged along, crafting gorgeous variations of the Great American Novel and producing, in addition, an autobiography (The Facts) and a non-fictional account of his father's death (Patrimony: A True Story).
Roth's novels have been oft characterized as "Jewish literature," a stifling distinction that irks Roth to no end. Having grown up in a Jewish household in a lower-middle-class sub-section of Newark, New Jersey, he is incessantly being asked where his seemingly autobiographical characters end and the author begins, another irritant for Roth. He approaches interviewers with an unsettling combination of stoicism, defensiveness, and black wit, qualities that are reflected in his work. For such a high-profile writer, Roth remains enigmatic, seeming to have laid his life out plainly in his writing, but refusing to specify who the real Philip Roth is.
Roth's debut Goodbye, Columbus instantly established him as a significant writer. This National Book Award winner was a curious compendium of a novella that explored class conflict and romantic relationships and five short stories. Here, fully formed in Roth's first outing, was his signature wit, his unflinching insightfulness, and his uncanny ability to satirize his character's situations while also presenting them with humanity. The only missing element of his early work was the outrageousness he would not begin to cultivate until his third full-length novel Portnoy's Complaint -- an unquestionably daring and funny post-sexual revolution comedy that tipped Roth over the line from critically acclaimed writer to literary celebrity.
Even as Roth's personal relationships and his relationship to writing were severely shaken following the success of Portnoy's Complaint, he continued publishing outrageous novels in the vein of his commercial breakthrough. There was Our Gang, a parodic attack on the Nixon administration, and The Breast, a truly bizarre take on Kafka's Metamorphosis, and My Life as a Man, the pivotal novel that introduced Roth's literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.
Zuckerman would soon be the subject of his very own series, which followed the writer's journey from aspiring young artist with lofty goals to a bestselling author, constantly bombarded by idiotic questions, to a man whose most important relationships have all but crumbled in the wake of his success. The Zuckerman Trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Counterlife) directly paralls Roth's career and unfolds with aching poignancy and unforgiving humor.
Zuckerman would later reemerge in another trilogy, although this time he would largely be relegated to the role of narrator. Roth's American Trilogy (I Married a Communist, the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America), shifts the focus to key moments in the history of late-20th –century American history.
In Everyman (2006) , Roth reaches further back into history. Taking its name from a line of 15th-century English allegorical plays, Everyman is classic Roth -- funny, tragic, and above all else, human. It is also yet another in a seemingly unbreakable line of critical favorites, praised by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and The Library Journal.
In 2007's highly anticipated Exit Ghost, Roth returned Nathan Zuckerman to his native Manhattan for one final adventure, thus bringing to a rueful, satisfying conclusion one of the most acclaimed literary series of our day. While this may (or may not) be Zuckerman's swan song, it seems unlikely that we have seen the last Philip Roth. Long may he roar.
Good To Know
Before publishing his first novel, Roth wrote an episode of the suspenseful TV classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
A film adaptation of American Pastoral is currently in the works. Australian director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence; Patriot Games) is on board to direct.