Some Philip Roth Moments

Philip Roth is dead. I read many of his books over the years. Here, in no particular order, are some recollections of those encounters:

  1. I discover Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school. This, I’m sure you will agree, is a strange time for someone to ‘find’ Roth, especially when you consider that the person doing the ‘finding’ is a thirty-something Indian man, undergoing a career change from being a systems analyst to a graduate student of philosophy. I found Portnoy’s Complaint hilarious, side-splittingly so; its depiction of an unabashed psychosexual insanity curiously sanity-inducing; the Jewish mother was someone I could recognize, and even love from afar. I did not think that I would find resonances with my life here, in this text, written by this person, in that time and place. But I did; it was one of the most American moments of my many years in America.
  2. I turned my girlfriend onto Portnoy’s Complaint; she went ahead to read Goodbye Columbus and told me she loved Roth so much that she would read anything and everything he wrote; I was possessed by jealousy for a few moments (fine, a little longer than that), but it soon passed. He could write.
  3. Roth could be very insightful; he could also be very tedious. The Human Stain was the most tedious of his works. It was too long by about two hundred pages. I recognized the attempt for the story-telling to be capacious in it, but it did not work.
  4. The women in Roth’s novel often made me uncomfortable; they fucked a lot, they had lots of good lines, but they seemed, not in a good way at all, to be figments entirely of Roth’s imagination. They seemed to be as he wanted women to be, desperately: sexually voracious, uncomplicated, roughly and strongly accepting of the stupidity and cruelty and blindness of the men in their lives because they saw past all of that to the hurt, the fear, the desperate desire to be alive in their own uncompromising way that was very often the hallmark of the Roth man. For Roth, their sexual appetites made them alive; more alive than those who claimed to speak for them or protect them from writers like Roth. For all that, they still seemed to hew close to cliche.
  5. Once, in my own classic ‘Jewish encounters in Brooklyn’ story I met a young man at my gym whose father also lifted weights here. The father was loud and profane and strong; he was a dirty old man who liked asking about other mens’ partners in ever-so slightly leering ways. His son was proud of him, perplexed by him. His father was not as observant as his mother; his mother was orthodox. The young man’s girfriend was a shiksa; his father liked her but wanted his son to date a Jewish woman so that it would make his mother happy. The young man loaned me a lot of his Roth collection; I finally read Goodbye Columbus thanks to him. We talked about tribalism; we talked about identity. He was half my age, but very thoughtful, and I don’t think it was accidental that the bridge between us was Roth’s writing.

John Cheever On Computer Programming

In The Wapshot Chronicle (Harper and Row, New York, 1957), John Cheever writes:

There was a demand that year for Tapers and he pointed this out to Coverly as his best bet. The government would pay half of Coverly’s tuition at the MacIlhenney Institute. It was a four-month course and if he passed his exams he would be taken into government service at seventy-five dollars a week,.  Advised and encouraged by his friend, Coverly enrolled in some night classes on Taping. This involved the translation of physics experiments into the symbols–or tape–that could be fed into a computation machine….

The first lecture was an orientation talk on cybernetics or automation, and if Coverly, with his mildly rueful disposition, had been inclined to find any irony in his future relationship to a thinking machine, he was swiftly disabused. Then they got to work on memorizing the code.

This was like learning a language and a rudimentary one. Everything was done by rote. They were expected to memorize fifty symbols a week. They were quizzed for fifteen minutes at the opening of each class and were given speed tests at the end of the two-hour period. After a month of this the symbols–like the study of any language–had begun to dominate Coverly’s thinking, and walking on the street he had gotten into the habit of regrouping numbers on license plates, prices in store windows and numerals on clocks so that they could be fed into a machine….[pp. 155]

Coverly passed his Civil Service examination and was qualified as a Taper. [pp. 164]

These little excerpts are notable for several reasons:

  1. I have never seen the programming of computers in that early period of computing history referred to as ‘taping’; neither have I seen programmers referred to as ‘tapers.’ I have not been able to find instances of this nomenclature elsewhere. (I have, of course, seen human calculators referred to as ‘computers.’)
  2. Cheever’s descriptions of ‘taping’ and the process of learning a ‘programming language’ are not elementary; I wonder if he had some experience with computers and working on them. (Incidentally, the method of instruction–the memorization of a set numerical quota of symbols every day or week–reminds me of a story a Taiwanese friend once told me about how Chinese is taught to young children in elementary schools.)
  3. Cheever refers to Coverly being employed at “one of the rocket-launching stations where Tapers were employed.” The Wapshot Chronicle was published in 1957; NASA only came into being in 1958, so the activities Cheever would have been referring to would presumably have been those of the US Air Force’s Atlas missile program or perhaps an experimental project run by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).
  4. Cheever indicates that Coverly was “qualified as a Taper” on passing a Civil Service examination; I wonder whether there was such an examination and if so, who administered it, what it was called, what its contents were, etc.
  5. I wonder if such a reference to computer programming is among the first–if not the first–in post-war mainstream fiction. (By which I mean works not classified as science fiction.)

The Never-Ending Angst Over the Nobel Prize In Literature

Ian Crouch asks why more Americans don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The last one to do so was Toni Morrison in 1993, an award I remember especially clearly because a) I had only recently started reading her and b) I was struck by the fact of an African-American woman writer being so recognized.)

This sort of discussion seems vaguely familiar to me: worries about whether the Nobel committee–a bunch of Swedes!–is deliberately resisting an ever-threatening global American hegemony and/or rubbing American noses in it by selecting year after year, ‘obscure’ writers and poets that Americans will be unfamiliar with; vague condemnations that ironically flirt with narrow-mindedness themselves while indicting the American literary scene of provincialism and parochialism; suspicions that the Nobel Prize is awarded to those literary works that are, for some reason or the other, simply not produced by American writers; and so on. (These discussions are distinct from the usual dismayed and disbelieving, ‘Can you believe X was never awarded/Y hasn’t yet been/Z has been nominated for/ the prize?’)

This buzzing mass of speculation, confusion and half-baked theorizing is inevitable: first, we are talking about a Prize, and second its being awarded for Literature. (The money associated with the Nobel Prize does its bit but, really, it’s the hype that does most of the damage.) Judging writers by panels was always going to generate this sort of discussion. If prizes for physics can engender as much controversy as they have, then literature should be even more productive.

The good news for Crouch is that if an American doesn’t win this year, he can just republish the same piece next year.

Note: The most entertaining part of the Crouch piece comes in the comments, where a cranky gentleman writes:

It startles me to find that some people believe America to be a literary powerhouse.  My impression is that 95% of the material to be found in bookstores, or in lists of prize winners, was all written by the same person who had spent too many years at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Truth is, the literary industry today aims its products primarily at semi-educated urban feminist careerists who adhere to the current liberal dogmas while employing a demotic prose that reads as if it were dictated by a 35-year-old woman with a Northeastern degree while she lies soaking in warm bathwater.

Do this – go to your nearest bookstore, pick up some highly praised post-modern novel, open said book, and read just the first page.  Do this ten times with ten different novels, and then swear to me on your life that they were not authored by some adept, or some inept I should have said, piece of software. Because that’s where the money is, at the most congested segment of the Bell Curve.

I once asked an editor if William Faulkner could be published today, assuming he weren’t already famous.  “Certainly not,” she said.  “No one would publish him today, and if someone did, no one would read him.”