Monday, November 21, 2011

On Kenneth Bernard; Philip Roth

Only an American could write a story as small-minded and moronic as Kenneth Bernard's "Preparations". I found this short piece anthologized in Sudden Fiction International. Utterly vulgar in its pseudo-intellectualism, potty-brained in a jittery post-Puritan way, I wondered as I read along how Bernard was ever going to get his narrator out of the muck the piece begins in. But the tale only got worse and worse until, in a paroxysm of dumb cliche, the writer used his last words to label poor Anya a sweaty pig as she mutters "guttural sweet Russian" to the dying narrator. The supposedly profound musings that take up most of the body of this story make me want to wretch.

I know I haven't even explained the gist of this tale. It isn't worth doing. I post this here because it's only rarely that a writer's work makes me want to throw the book at the wall. Bernard, alas, is the 2011 winner in this category.

* * *

Only an American could have written the bleak and stoic masterpiece that is The Human Stain. A daring and brilliant book, difficult to put down, there is yet something deeply untrue in it, impossible, something that never ceases to irk one as one reads. I think it's this: All Roth's characters are believable as people--all, that is, except for his protagonist Coleman Silk. Though he's built up biographically, step by step, one finally doesn't really believe Silk is possible. He's a character too mythically American to be quite real. Silk's Americanism, if we might call it that, finally makes him a monster--which may very well be the essence of Roth's art here: to have proven that the American myth of the self-made man, if pushed to its limit, becomes either hollow or monstrous. Or: To the extent we are truly individuals, we can only be examples of a foolish hubris.

I read The Human Stain with few preconceptions, as I don't know Roth's poetics. I haven't been moved to read much of Roth, so I've little background telling me what he might intend. This is probably a good thing: I can read this relatively late book without reading it as either an installment in an ongoing literary project, or as part of a developing lifelong thesis on America.

I will continue with American Pastoral and The Plot Against America.

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