Ten years since my mother died, I can count on one hand the number of people I ever heard her say anything mean about. They were:
1. A woman who frequently gave long, rambly, stream-of-thought sermons at our synagogue.
2. A terrible colleague who left her endless nastygrams.
3. A woman who ran a grocery near our house (she called this woman a bitch. This was in roughly 1993. It made an impression).
4. A former boss who once joked about sabotaging her career.
5. Philip Roth
When I got the push notification on my phone that Roth had died on Tuesday night, I felt a little thrill. I’m sure my mom would want me to note that I’m sad when any human dies. It is a loss. But Roth has always seemed to me like an asshole who prided himself on being an asshole. My mom’s distaste for him went back to Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. She explained her dislike of him by saying that he loved to trumpet the idea that Jewish women were JAPs.
By the time I delved into Roth’s work myself, I was primed as a contrarian, and thought it was likely that I would find him to be a genius my mother simply couldn’t recognize. Instead, I vividly remember turning each page and wondering, “When will this get good?” I read Portnoy’s Complaint for a class in humor, and eventually confessed to the professor, “I don’t understand what’s funny about this.” It was disgusting and sad, not funny.
In graduate school for fiction writing, then living on the Upper West Side, it seemed that Roth and his admirers were everywhere, annually bemoaning that he had not won the Nobel Prize, extolling the virtues of his standing typewriter desk, sharing stories of young pretty women in publishing he had bedded. I learned that Roth was like Ayn Rand. If I went on a date with someone who mentioned loving Roth on our first date, it was a good indicator that I should suddenly come down with a terrible headache. People who loved Roth loved him, and could not imagine how anyone else could feel differently.
Reading his books (which I have continued to do, because every few years I think, “Maybe I just haven’t read the right Philip Roth novel. If I found that one, I would get it”) I found myself defensive and disgusted. He hated me. Hated Jewish women. Wanted to fuck us, but primarily wanted to fuck us over, and then sit us down to listen to him extol the virtues of some blonde, red-mouthed, 20-something.
In this moment of #MeToo it’s bizarre to see the Roth hagiography, everyone tripping over themselves to say how meaningful they found his work, how revolutionary. I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum. If you love his work, go ahead and love it. But right now, when the world seems to finally be waking up to the depth and breadth of our problem with sexual harassment and rape culture, it’s a weird moment to focus on a man who wrote a book from the perspective of a breast, who this year wrote to the New York Times Book Review, “I’ve tried to be uncompromising in depicting these men each as he is, each as he behaves, aroused, stimulated, hungry in the grip of carnal fervor and facing the array of psychological and ethical quandaries the exigencies of desire present. I haven’t shunned the hard facts in these fictions of why and how and when tumescent men do what they do, even when these have not been in harmony with the portrayal that a masculine public-relations campaign — if there were such a thing — might prefer.”
Philip Roth thought that simply being horny presented an ethical quandary, and he wrote so many books detailing the quandaries of men who were horny and thus could not help themselves, they had to be assholes.
Perhaps it’s fitting that when I heard Roth had died, I felt the way I do when I take my bra off after a long day. Something uncomfortable has given way. All day long it has been trying to strangle me, and now I can finally breathe freely.
Header Image via Gregory Di Folco on Flickr.