Philip Roth – When She Was Good

From May, 2007…

The year was 1967. In America, Roe vs. Wade and Title IX were still five years away, and a proliferation of the saucy-cum-insouciant heroine was unimaginable. A few women were dumping their bras in the trash, or even burning them, and yes, Philip Roth was writing. The title When She Was Good is reminiscent of 60s and 70s aftershave commercials where a sports hero might receive a facial massage from the sleekly scratching hands of a woman being, to his mind, very, very good. The notion of women being better when they are badly behaved is nothing new. But this is Philip Roth, and Roth’s idea of bad-as-good means “watch out”. Thinking of Lucy Nelson as a protagonist is difficult as there is nothing favorable about her. She’s born angry, vindictive, moralistic, and incurable. Only she doesn’t know it. In fact, she never has an inkling of insight and says, over and over, “but I’m good.”

Roth leads us into a sort of mixed sympathy for Lucy. She’s the daughter of a ne’er-do-well alcoholic and his passive wife. Her childhood is marred by the ousting of her father from the home after a drunken bout. But it is Lucy who does the ousting, Lucy who dials the police and breathes the sigh of relief when he is taken away. From that point, she wages war with men, chief among them her hapless husband, Roy, a WWII vet who loves her in a disheveled manner that she just can’t forgive. Philip Roth brings the reader into that mixed atmosphere of sympathy and frustration with Lucy, sympathy for her unplanned pregnancy and a waffling Roy, frustration with her blind spots, and finally an all out rivet as Lucy’s need to control wreaks havoc upon her family and self.

When She Was Good meanders through half the story; then, in Roth’s inimitable way, he strips the veneer and exposes the wolf. Written in realistic style and without any of his trademark humor, Roth struggles to find Lucy’s voice and motivation in much of the novel. She is somewhat weakly written until she begins to unravel, but then what an affair that is! The last third of the book holds fast and will not let go. As Lucy tries harder to get the square peg into the hole, her defenses smack of all their futility and uselessness. Her husband flees from her rages, taking their child and precipitating her shrieking downfall as she continues to demand their very lives. Only when she discovers that her father has been writing her mother all along, for years, is Lucy mortally undone. These simple lines shared by her imperfect parents place the final crack in her brittle casing, and she’s finished.

As years go by–with accelerated speed,
We find with us, an ever growing need
To recall to mind, and a wish to live,
In that glorious past–to re-have and re-give.

We bring to mind–the mistakes we made,
The aches and hurts–that we’ve caused, I’m afraid
Are brought in distinctly–with increasing pain
Till we wish, with all heart–to re-do it again.

Only to do it better–so that the pain is gone,
And make them all the good things, all along.
At least the great wish that would be really mine,
That I could just once more–be your Valentine.

No one does it gooder.

Exit Ghost

When last October’s Atlantic hit the doorstep, I whisked past the cover displaying Bill Clinton’s unsightly mug and scoured the index for something to banish sight of him. What to my eyes should appear but the lead-in for a withering review by Christopher Hitchens of Philip Roth’s latest novel, Exit Ghost. I’ve read Hitchens for years in the magazine, at times enjoying him but finding his superiority mostly tiresome. I shelved the issue, waiting until I’d read the novel before facing Hitchens’ problems with it.

After carefully reading ”Zuckerman Undone”, I most assuredly disagree with Hitchens. In fact, it feels as though we read two different novels. He sees

…that Roth has degraded the Eros-Thanatos dialectic of some of his earlier work and is now using his fiction, first to kill off certain characters and to shoot the wounded, and second to give himself something to masturbate about.

I found Exit Ghost to be a meditation, not only upon death or sex or even upon growing older, but on the persistent difficulty that a writer must have in being lumped always into the same basket as his words. Maybe I haven’t paid due attention to this before when reading Roth. His mixture of humor and warmth have drawn me for years. It seems to me with this reading that Roth is saying, loudly and forcefully, that no one can ever come close to knowing the writer as person by knowing the writer’s words. The writer is the ghost, the pulled back observer who may seem to imbue everything with himself but who doesn’t exist off of the page.

this scene of dialogue unspoken recorded what hadn’t been done and was an aid to nothing, alleviated nothing, achieved nothing, and yet, just as on election night, it had seemed terribly necessary to write the instant I came through the door, the conversations she and I don’t have more affecting even than the conversations we do have, and the imaginary ”She” vividly at the middle of her character as the actual ”she” will never be.

But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.

I’ve always loved Roth’s work because it feels as though he’s playing with his readers, stirring them up with frankly sexual dialogue and unflattering characterizations. But I’ve never found the self loathing that others who read him have. There’s loathing aplenty in Exit Ghost, for overbearing celebrity hounds, for the cell phone ethic of relentless immediacy, for Bushies, and for brutality. For the literary life- reading, writing, and the attempt at self riddance – Exit Ghost is solid praise and understanding for those ”very, very few” who allow themselves to be fully drawn only on paper.