How can you pass up The Great American Novel? I didn’t really want to read the thing about what if Charles Lindbergh had become President and we joined with Hitler. Woulda coulda shoulda. But I wanted to see what this Roth guy (who frankly I had never heard of) had written, and I came across “this ribald, richly imagined, wickedly satirical novel” in which Philip Roth “turns baseball’s status as national pastime and myth into an occasion for unfettered picaresque farce, replete with heroism and perfidy, ebullient wordplay and a cast of characters that includes the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
Obviously not the great American novel, this (apparently written and published in 1973) is, nevertheless, a really interesting book. It’s fresh and original stylistically. Particularly the Prologue.
But there is almost a disconnect between the Prologue and the rest of the book.
What is really missing here is a stronger character at the center. You don’t feel that the narrator is very palpable. Nor do I really understand why he calls every woman a “slit”. I can see why the ball players might, but I’m not sure why he – a sportswriter – feels the same way. It seems to have something to do with Roth’s feelings about Henry Miller. Of course, Miller used the offensive “c-word”. Despite my familiarity with numerous terms for the female anatomy, I was actually not tuned in to it. In fact, before it was clear he was referring to women, I thought it might be a racial epithet.
Along these lines, the whole Jewish thing gets a bit tired. Jewish authors seemed so pre-occupied with Nazis and anti-Semitism and being Jewish. Just like Southern whites are always pre-occupied with trying to prove that they’re not racists. It gets old.
The other thing occurred to me is that, in the final analysis, satire can only get you so far. Most of the people you are mocking are going to be totally closed off and unreceptive to even the idea of opening the book. You are, for the most part, preaching to the choir. Presumably, there are some in the middle who are up for grabs as potential converts, but – and here’s the rub – you’re basically telling them, at the outset, that what you are writing about isn’t really that important.
So they agree with you. Baseball’s a fraud. So what?
It’s funny. It’s cute. It’s enjoyable. There are a few poignant observations about people and politics and pop culture, etc. And if you are interested in the way books are written, there are some thought-provoking passages and intriguing techniques. But, ultimately, so what?
Not to criticize this book in particular. Could say that about a lot of books. Could say that about my books.
But for someone who is apparently pre-occupied with the idea of writing the great American novel, it seems a strange choice.
On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t believe in the great American novel. Maybe he is mocking the whole idea of a great American novel. Himself, and his contemporaries, and predecessors, and would-be successors. And that is the true object of his satire.
But, of course, that’s a strange choice too. Because, by definition, the idea itself is (perhaps) not worthy of being mocked or satirized.