religion & roth & fiction & pickles

Sitting in an oversized itchy chair trying to think how I can convince you of Philip Roth.

Which is silly. Like feeling compelled to convince someone of Voltaire or Valéry or Proust... if only any of those people were American... since Roth is already revered. 

But I just read The Ghost Writer (which turns out to be a brilliant title), my first Philip Roth book, and it proved what most current fiction seems oblivious to... and thus doesn't even attempt... that ordinary reality, properly tended to, can go deep.

Deep in an un-extraordinary way. Deep without dragging us into the mire of unrealistic circumstances. Deep without forcing us to endure something like a contrived road trip with a canary in a cage. Without conjuring quirky long lost mothers or fathers or cousins. Quirky anyone.

In Roth, there are no tornadoes headed to town. Or chests with golden treasure discovered in attics. No suggestive, ominous... "but what will happen when....?" Sarah's mother comes to visit. Or uncle dies and leave her penniless, or wealthy with a mission to go to the Tropic of Cancer and find what he never could. Nothing they can put on the back of the book in a blurb that is premeditatedly meant to GRAB YOU.

By virtue of him being a contemporary author, I'd never been enticed to read Philip Roth, since I presumed he was another one of those. But The Ghost Writer was on a shelf where I'm staying, so I picked it up and in moments, within a mere clause, I understood it was different and got it.  (How do writers cast such spells? it has to be something beyond words... when you can know even before the first sentence is complete...).

In four quick chapters, it was over. Too soon.

Post novel, I found this bit from Roth's interview with Paris Review and I like what he's said... 

"What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book—if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that’s otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn’t fiction. This is something that every child, smitten by books, understands immediately, though it’s not at all a childish idea about the importance of reading."

Religion used to do this. Serve this function. Possess us. I think inside possession we find some truth. Some awe. Some wonder. That something can overtake us so overwhelmingly that we genuinely forget ourselves and find pleasure in the forgetting. We don't remember it enough........... No. Not remember. *Experience* -- it's what we're masturbatory getting at with the 'net.... but that's only distractedly-engaging, with no narrative, no resolution, no *end* -- just one slick picture, and line, and headline after another...  lots of loopy-turns, but no grand arc... a horizontal water-slide. I always feel a little sick afterwards when I finally get off.

But what we really want, what I really want, what we're scrambling around in the dark for, post-religion, in our current stop-gap age of bad fiction and perpetual internet diversion... is something that can take hold of me in a the setting of my own reality, point out what I might not have seen, without resorting to quick, slick tricks of extreme circumstance, too fabricated and removed from our own living to be actually relevant... It's hard to do and there's not enough of it.

It's like the pickle trend. Even the ones that cost $8-$10 a jar and have gotten loads of artisanal attention are not very good. Likely to appeal only to people who've never had a taste-bud stopping, sense-arresting, home-made pickle in their life.

And apparently, that's most of us now.