It requires considerable chutzpah to write a novel called The Great American Novel, but you can see the fun that Philip Roth had in writing the novel even though it’s one of his less successful novels. At the end of the book he describes critical reaction to the novel written by Smitty, the sportswriter (another of Roth’s alter egos): “A real screwball, that one. Imagination up and run away with him, and the two just never come back. Cracked right down the middle, he is.” It’s an insightful criticism of Roth’s book in that much of it is out of control–but still mostly great fun and enjoyable.
A few days after finishing Roth’s book I read how B F Skinner, the great behavioural psychologist “discovered as a young man that he would never write the great American novel [and] felt a despair that nearly drove him into psychotherapy.” Two other leading psychologists, George Miller and William James, wanted to write the great American novel but discovered they couldn’t and turned to psychology as second best. I remember how our professor of psychiatry in Edinburgh said that psychiatrists were writing the novels of their patients’ lives.
Roth’s novel is a satire, and he eases any pressure he might have felt about writing the great American novel with this quote before the novel begins; “… the Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff …” Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist.
Baseball is a more obvious subject for the great American novel than whaling (Moby Dick), adultery (The Scarlet Letter), or rural life in the South (Huckleberry Finn), all of which Roth satirises, because: “Do you remember what it is that links in brotherhood millions upon millions of American men, makes kin of competitors, makes neighbors of strangers, makes friends of enemies, if only while that game is going on? Baseball!”
Roth shows his virtuoso writing skills in a long prologue in which he plays with alliteration and other devices of eloquence https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/how-philip-roth-feels-about-being-dead/ and writes pastiches of Moby Dick and other classic novels. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/06/25/philip-roths-marvellous-pastiche-of-moby-dick/ It’s impossible not to be impressed and amused by his skills, but they do go too far.
Then the novel proper begins, the story of a hopeless baseball team playing in a doomed league during the second world war. Accounts of baseball matches run right though the novel with all the jargon of the game, which is mostly unintelligible to those who don’t know the game well. This, I fear, might put off some readers, but I didn’t find it a problem. Through the device of baseball Roth covers many of the great issues of America, including immigration, race relations, politics, McCarthyism, attitudes to the disabled, capitalism, showmanship, the media, and much more. Much of it is very funny, and I particularly enjoyed the take-off of the horrors of talk radio. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/06/29/a-brilliant-take-off-of-the-horrors-of-talk-radio/
There were more longeurs than is usual in a Roth novel, but I enjoyed it greatly.
Here are quotes I extracted:
Great American novel
… the Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff … Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist
“O why must there be d for deceased! Deceit, defeat, decay, deterioration, bad enough – but d as in dead? It’s too damn tragic, this dying business! I tell you, I’d go without daiquiris, daisies, damsels, Danish, deck chairs, Decoration Day doubleheaders, decorum, delicatessen, Demerol, democratic processes, deodorants, Derbys, desire, desserts, dial telephones, dictionaries, dignity, discounts, disinfectants, distilleries, ditto marks, doubletalk, dreams, drive-ins, dry cleaning, duck au montmorency, a dwelling I could call my own – why, I would go without daylight, if only I did not have to die. O fans, it is so horrible just being defunct, imagine, as I do, day in and day out.”
Ninety-nine per cent of their baseball ‘memories,’ ninety-nine per cent of the anecdotes and stories they recollect and repeat are pure hogwash, tiny morsels of the truth so coated over with discredited legend and senile malarkey, so impacted, you might say, in the turds of time, as to rival the tales out of ancient mythology. What the aged can do with the past is enough to make your hairs stand on end. But then look at the delusions that ordinary people have about the day before yesterday.
‘State Home for the Aged, the Infirm, the Despondent, the Neglected, the Decrepit, the Incontinent, the Senile, and the Just About Scared to Death. Life creeps in its petty pace, Commissioner.’
Only listen, Nathaniel, and Americans will write the Great American Novel for you.
‘I am,’ wrote Hawthorne, ‘a citizen of somewhere else.’ My precursor, and my kinsman too.
The sea is no longer a fit place for habitation – just ask the tunas in the cans.
Has-beens, might-have-beens, should-have-beens, would-have-beens, never-weres and never-will-bes,
Which are you? A has-been, might-have-been, should-have-been, would-have-been, never-were, or never-will-be? You’re bound to be one. (Thanks to Philp Roth.)
Do you remember what it is that links in brotherhood millions upon millions of American men, makes kin of competitors, makes neighbors of strangers, makes friends of enemies, if only while that game is going on? Baseball!
And if he is elected, he will ring down the curtain on the American tragedy – a tragedy because it will have been made into a farce! And when that terrible day comes, Roland, when a President Mazuma is installed in the White House, they won’t need a Red Army marching down Trust Street to blow up the Industrial and Maritime Exchange; the poor bewildered American people will do it themselves
“From each according to his stupidity, to each according to his greed.”
‘I think you’re going to like it here, Gramps. We look after you and you look after yourself, and the world outside can just worry about its own problems for a change.’
‘A real screwball, that one. Imagination up and run away with him, and the two just never come back. Cracked right down the middle, he is.’
‘In battle with the lie,’ said Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, ‘art has always been victorious, always wins out, visibly, incontrovertibly for all! The lie can stand against much in the world – but not against art.’