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Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

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Postmodernism or “pomo” has made itself an everyday name today. In my earlier reading experiences, I’ve never put much thought to the term. It is only recently I realized that I’ve read some really good postmodern literature and considered them favorites -The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, The City and the City by China MiĆ©ville, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf- just to name a few. Although I am  skeptical  touching some books even at arm’s length, because I’ve been burned before by If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, I still considered daring some selected authors. Philip Roth is one of them.

As it turns out, following Philip Roth isn’t going to be hard. Over the years, he had established a postmodernism framework through his Zuckerman Bound books. The character Nathan Zuckerman, a writer and a Jew, will be a constant presence in this collection, albeit not always as the main character. Zuckerman is Roth's alleged fictional alter ego, which makes complete sense considering postmodernism obsess on self-reflection. The Ghost Writer is set in 1959, wherein the young Zuckerman is still in his twenties, enjoying a burst of success from his short stories, mirroring Roth’s debut on the path of postmodernism as his life career.

Nathan Zuckerman had a quarrel with his father, who was offended by the “Jewish humor” he employed in a semi-autobiographical short story he wrote. Hurt and seeking validation, he went to see E. I. Lonoff, a figure reputed for his literary somberness and observant understanding of Jewish experiences. He was treated with an afternoon of food, significant conversations, affirmation of his own works, and firsthand experience of the Lonoff domesticity. Later, the night carried with it a snowstorm, bounding Zuckerman to accept further hospitality from the Lonoffs and spend the night over. In the fits of sleeplessness, his thoughts went back to Lonoff’s assistant, Amy Bellete, and her history, true or not, depend highly on Roth’s careful cleverness and audaciousness.

Standing with E.I. Lonoff over the disobedient arm of his record player,
I understood the celebrated phenomenon for the first time: a man, his destiny,
and his work – all one. What a terrible triumph!

The center of THE GHOST WRITER tackles the problem of a young writer confronted by a story that may affirm anti-Semitic view of Jews as greedy and plutomanic people, a story that may ultimately hurt his family and community. Ironically, such story nowadays is regarded as funny and normal Jewish life, a well-embraced sitcom on primetime TV, like The Nanny, The Goldbergs, Even Stevens, Rugrats, and Seinfeld. Whether Roth and other postmodernist author contributed to their successes, where even non-Jewish people appreciate the variability of normal Jewish life, depends entirely on the viewer.

People don’t read art – they read about people. And they judge them as such.

Roth wrote an engaging narrative. He managed to be brief, yet witty and thoughtful at the same time. His words will lug the reader through, allowing a significant slow contemplation. A reader will gain more in several sittings.

I am not sure when I can come back to this series, but I am glad to have experienced Roth’s writing. So, if you are considering on taking up postmodernism as your next target read, do consider including Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound series on your list.



Book details:
Author:  Philip Roth
Publication:  August 1995, 1st Vintage International Edition
Genre:  Postmodernism
Rating:  ★★★★




2 comments :

  1. Minor correction: To the Lighthouse is not a postmodernist novel. I see some of us citing that it is (I think it's a matter of confusion because it's actually a modernist novel).

    Re: Roth. I've first read his collection of stories (Goodbye, Columbus) and I didn't warm up to it. So now I'm wary of any of his works. Sigh.

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    1. Oh yes, that is correct. To the Lighthouse was written in the 1920s. :)

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