Philip Roth: Where to Begin?

Philip, commonly held to be one of the most important figures in modern American literature, passed away on the 22nd of May 2018, at 85-years old. Hailing form Newark, New Jersey, Roth took home a plethora of awards, including two National Book Awards, two from the National Book Critics Circle, the Man Booker Prize, thee of the PEN/Faulkner Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for American Pastoral.

He’s written 31 books, and all of them are remarkable in some way, if not for winning prizes then for causing controversy and just generally shaking up the sometimes complacent landscape of modern American fiction. But, in the same way that novice bettors could get overwhelmed by the plethora of information regarding AFL betting odds online, neophyte Roth-readers could get intimidated by his huge catalogue. Where do you begin? Here is some advice for you to get started exploring this great man’s wonderful mind.

The Ghost Writer, 1979

Where better to begin with Roth than with the very first book who’s narrator was his fictional alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman?

In this first outing, Zuckerman visits the home of his literary icon, E. I. Lonoff. It’s set in 1956, and you will be enjoying the first of Roth’s many gifts, his wisdom, put forth in the form of the dialogue these two men engage in as they talk of life and writing.

That same night Zuckerman meets Amy Bellette, a previous student of Lonoff’s, who has a murky European past and is working on Lonoff’s papers, but may or may not be a little closer to him than that.

The plot thickens with heavy snowfall forcing Zuckerman to spend the night, and Roth takes that moment to introduce an outrageous fantasy element that sees Bellette being none other than Anne Frank herself, alive and well!

After you’ve read this novel, and enjoyed the wit, intelligence, and sheer love of literature that Roth and his books are so famous for, you can look forward to experiencing many more Zuckerman-headed novels by this wonderful writer, including Exit Ghost, which has him facing Amy Bellette one final time.

Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969

Portnoy’s Complaint was my introduction to Roth, and the shocking Freudian rant ripping through the prose as Alexander Portnoy comes to terms with his existence is something to marvel at. Nothing is off-limits, and Roth explores loving and loathing his parents, the impact of his being Jewish, and the sometimes uncomfortable aspects of his sexuality.

This book became a new prototype for confessional fiction, something which the writer went on to refine and re-refine many times over the rest of his career.

You will fall in love with Portnoy’s Complaint for the same reasons I did, and the millions of other readers who adore Roth did: it’s insane, incessant prose, its vitality, and rule-breaking, and it’s hilarity. No other writer performs at quite the same decibel-level as Roth does, and Portnoy’s Complaint reaches the kind of intensity very rarely seen.

The Nobel Prize was the one award which managed to elude Roth, but, despite the fact that he never achieved that particular honour, the complex legacy of this titan of a writer and his towering body of work don’t suffer at all for it.

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