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Philip Roth: I Married A Communist

Heteronym

New Member
There’s a great pleasure in getting to know a writer’s style. I Married A Communist marks the third Philip Roth novel I’ve read, and I’m amazed at how Roth can write a novel so consistent with his other works, with many identifiable author marks, and still weave a surprising, enthralling story dragged straight from our tragic, contradictory nature. Many of his traits are present: his journey through American history; his fascination with politics; his long sentences that build to a crescendo; his careful repetition of words to form rhythm; setting up small details in his characters’ pasts that take on unexpected importance in the present; using his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman as narrator; the themes of childhood and growing up, and of childhood idols.

My first Roth novel was The Plot Against America, a semi-science fiction novel in which WWII history takes a different course, Charles Lindbergh, anti-Semite and isolationist, defeats Roosevelt in the presidential campaign, sides with the Nazis and starts a near-dictatorship in the USA. I’d call it a masterpiece were it not for its awkward, rushed ending and its shameless deus ex machina. Roth also never thinks through the repercussions a simple change in history would have in its development; I can’t accept he really believes history, with so many changes, would have happened mostly as we know it, with the exception of WWII ending in 1946 and not ’45.

But I loved his prose and characterization, so I tried American Pastoral, which has no deus ex machina and is a masterpiece. This time Roth explores the turbulent ‘60s through the eyes of a couple that has to deal with their daughter becoming a terrorist and murderer, herself a victim of the idealism that defined this era. It’s my introduction to Nathan Zuckerman, who narrates a story about his childhood idol, Swede Levov, baseball hero, who tries to put on a façade of normality in spite of his highly dysfunctional personal life.

With I Married A Communist Roth goes from the the post-WWII years and moves to the McCarthy years, again using Zuckerman to narrate the story of Ira Ringold, militant communist and radio star, who initiates young Nate into politics, and who, Zuckerman finds out many years later, wasn’t a perfect man after all. This novel, like American Pastoral is also about Zuckerman’s formative years and how he re-analyses his past idol. Roth knows how to write adolescence well, especially the idealism young people are naturally attracted to, how it means everything when we’re teens, and how embarrassing it all seems when we’re older :D

I also love Roth for not fearing to write about politics. I find too much literature ignores politics, even though it is everywhere around us, shapes our lives for better and for worse, usually without our approval. It’s critical to anyone who lives in this planet, and yet many writers seem to consider it too mundane and unimportant. Roth doesn’t: whether tackling fascism, extreme idealism, or communism, he does it with rigour, without becoming a propagandist. He knows that literature and propaganda don’t mix: in the novel, Ira fills Nate’s head with lots of ideology and rhetoric; Nate, a struggling writer, starts pouring communist ideology into his writing. When he gets to college and hands his first play to a teacher, he goes on a rant about how his writing is shit because it’s nothing but rhetoric, fairy-tale crap that paints the world in black and white. Roth never does this. I was pleasantly surprised at the way communism – always a dangerous thing in an artist’s hands – is handled in the novel. He creates a three-dimensional communist, a man with understandable reasons to choose communism, while being critical of it. Instead of just going after McCarthy – the witch-hunts have mostly a climatic role in the plot – he also goes after the contradictions and hypocrisies in communism.

But it's especially about Ira’s life. Ira, who believes he’s been destroyed by the ‘Red-Baiters’ and their witch-hunts, never realizing how he was just a pawn of rhetoric, how his ideology would have destroyed him anyway, McCarthy or no McCarthy, for he was never meant to be happy. Roth goes beyond good v. evil, beyond politics, and roots out the idiosyncrasies in our souls that are enough to make life tragic.
 

Shade

New Member
Thanks for posting this, Heteronym. I'm just getting into Roth myself (American Pastoral and Everyman were among my favourite reads last year) so I'll look this one out next!
 

unKeMPt

New Member
Roth is my absolute favorite author. The works closest in style and scope to those works you've listed are The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, and, of course, the ending of his Zuckerman American trilogy The Human Stain (which probably also happen to be my three favorite of his novels).

Portnoy's Complaint is a different animal completely, but if you want to see what Roth's early years look like, I'd give that one a shot as well.
 

Flor

New Member
Great review, Heteronym. I'm also a Roth fan, mostly for the humor. But I've taken a break from him for a couple of years. Time to find another good one for springtime. I think it will be Pastoral, and I'm hoping that Nathan's as tragically funny as when he was young. Love your observation here:

"Roth goes beyond good v. evil, beyond politics, and roots out the idiosyncrasies in our souls that are enough to make life tragic." Heteronym
 

WoundedThorns

New Member
i've only read The Plot against America by Roth. what disappointed me was that i was ready to read a Vonnegut-style novel. however, it was interesting to read an account that was actually.. plausable.

and i do agree with you on the ending. it felt rushed
 

Heteronym

New Member
The plausibility probably comes from that fact that Roth is writing it like an autobiography. He writes his family and himself into this alternative past, where he speculates how his childhood would have been under persecution. But something tells me that young Phil Roth really did suffer persecution in his childhood, for the simple reason the USA were no less anti-semitic than any other country in the '30s. His use of science fiction may just be a device to tell a very real story while keeping emotional distance.
 
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