Old Books, New Thoughts
Philip Roth on ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’
Rereading “Portnoy’s Complaint” 45 years on, I am shocked and pleased: shocked that I could have been so reckless, pleased that I was so reckless. I certainly didn’t understand while at work that henceforth I was never to be free of this psychoanalytic patient I was calling Alexander Portnoy — indeed, that I was on the brink of swapping my identity for his and that, subsequently, in many minds, his persona and all its paraphernalia would be understood to be mine and that my relations with people known and unknown would shift accordingly.
“Portnoy’s Complaint” was the fourth of 31 books. In writing it, I wasn’t looking for my freedom from anything other than the writer I had started out to be in my first three books. I was looking not for my catharsis as a neurotic or as a son, as some suggested, but rather for emancipation from traditional approaches to storytelling. While the protagonist may be straining to escape his moral conscience, I was attempting to break free from a literary conscience that had been constructed by my reading, my schooling and my fastidiousness — from a habitual sense of prose decorum. Impatient with the virtues of logical progression, I wanted to renounce the orderly, coherent development of an imagined world and to advance helter-skelter, in a frenzy, as the classic analytic patient ideally proceeds in the throes of associative freedom.
I portrayed a man who is the repository of every unacceptable thought, a 33-year-old man possessed by dangerous sensations, nasty opinions, savage grievances, sinister feelings and, of course, one stalked by the implacable presence of lust. In short, I wrote about the quotient of the unsocialized that is rooted in almost everyone and addressed by each with varying degrees of success. Here we get to overhear Portnoy at the analytic patient’s extemporizing task of managing (or mismanaging) his disorder.
Portnoy is as rich with ire as with lust. Who isn’t? Look at Robert Fagles’s translation of “The Iliad.” What’s the first word? “Rage.” That is how the whole of European literature begins: singing the virile rage of Achilles.
One writes a repellent book (and “Portnoy’s Complaint” was taken by many to be solely that) not to be repellent but to represent the repellent, to air the repellent, to expose it, to reveal how it looks and what it is. Chekhov wisely advised that the writer’s task lies not in solving problems but in properly presenting the problem.
Inasmuch as the Freudian ground rule is that nothing in a personal history is too petty or vulgar to speak about and nothing, likewise, too monstrous or grand, the psychoanalytic session provided me with the appropriate vessel to contain everything. The analyst’s office, the locale of the book, is that place where one need censor nothing. The rule is there is no rule, and that was the rule that I followed to depict a son’s satiric mockery of his Jewish family, wherein the most comical object of mockery proves to be the satirizing son himself. The ugly aggression of satire combined with satire’s hyperrealism — the portraiture verging on caricature, the comic appetite for the outlandish — was not, of course, to everyone’s taste. I, on the other hand, was carried on the wings of mirth far from my respectable first three books.
The grotesque conception that Portnoy has of his life owed much to regulations, inhibitions and taboos that no longer hold sway among the erotically unfettered youth in even the remotest American hamlet. Yet during a postwar American adolescence in the 1940s — a long half-century before Internet pornography was even dreamed of — these restraints prevailed in the constricted jurisdiction where Portnoy was so vexedly coming of age. Because of the drastic alteration in moral perspective over the last 45 years, the sexual news seemingly so calamitous when Portnoy first trumpeted his phallic history to his analyst in 1969 has by now been detoxified. In this regard, my immoderate book is now as dated as “The Scarlet Letter” or as its late-’60s stablemate, Updike’s “Couples,” another genitalic novel then still shocking enough to challenge already-flagging social certainties about the boundaries of eros and the prerogatives of lust.
Alexander Portnoy, R.I.P.
Lydia Davis on ‘Break It Down’
I read a story through again and again, whether it’s a long story or a short one (or a very very short one). If anything bothers me, even very subtly, I reread it many times, consider alternatives, put the story away for a while, read it again. I don’t consider a story finished until nothing bothers me anymore — though there are a few stories that never completely satisfied me but that I felt were good enough to go out in the world as they were. I simply couldn’t think what more I could do to them.
Robert A. Caro on ‘The Power Broker’
When I was writing I kept hearing, year after year, that nobody would read a book on Robert Moses. For most of those years I believed that. I never thought “The Power Broker” would have any sort of mass audience. But Moses was a figure who had so great an impact on New York and in many ways shaped it for centuries. He threw 500,000 people out of their homes for his highways and “slum” clearance projects, and I thought it was important for people to know how he got his power.
I wanted to write an introduction that would make readers see the scope of what Moses did, and how many lives he touched. So I asked myself what I had read that really captured the scope of something titanic. In “The Iliad,” Homer lists all the kingdoms that are coming to sack Troy and all the heroes of Troy who are going to fight them. These lists have a great rhythm to them. I thought that, if I could write well enough, I could do the same thing with highways: “He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.” The change in rhythm in the last line, that’s a dying fall.
George Saunders on ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline’
I don’t think I’d read “CivilWarLand” in its entirety since it came out, in 1996. Reading it again was a little panic-inducing, actually. Like if someone said, “Hey, we just found a compilation home video of you, circa 1990-96! Want to watch?” Well, you do and you don’t. I found the stories, relative to my present taste, kind of manic and abrupt. The guy who wrote them seems averse to saying anything in the usual way. The stories are fast, almost too fast — minimal physical description, very condensed, highly stylized. There’s an obsession with the unusual turn of phrase, and an aversion to anything that might be considered banal or mannered or extraneous. It feels as if the writer has had an inkling of a certain truth (about life under capitalism, or just life under material constraint, in general) and is desperately trying to get that message across, while simultaneously still discovering it, and in the process is condensing and garbling the message, but in a sort of likable way — the oddness of the communication feels related to a certain purity of intention. Finesse and elegance, it seems, had to be sacrificed in the name of urgency, maybe.
Reading these again, I found myself missing certain ghost-phrases that I was almost sure were in there, but which I obviously must have cut at some point. I found myself being rocketed back to the physical places I was sitting when I wrote the stories (my cubicle at the engineering company where I was working those seven long years); a Rochester city bus (editing madly at dusk while there was still light); sitting in a coffee shop (on break from the guitar lessons I taught on Saturdays). I also found myself being suddenly struck by a memory of the layout of one of the theme parks in the book, which layout was only hinted at in the story, but which I knew well enough that these memories seemed only a touch less real than my memory of the houses in which we lived during this time. The theme parks presented in my mind just as I’d left them, as if they’d been sitting there all these years, waiting for some Guests to arrive.
It was interesting to come back to something I’d made and find how much it had changed. Though we think we are making permanent monuments against which our egos can rest, we’re actually making something more akin to a fog cloud. We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.
Marilynne Robinson on ‘Housekeeping’
In writing “Housekeeping” I was trying to recover the appearance and the atmosphere of a very particular place, northern Idaho. When I wrote it, I had not spent much time there for almost 20 years. So it was very much an exploration of memory that I was engaged in. I thought I was writing an unpublishable book, so I was undistracted by other considerations than my own interest in the workings of memory and the ability of language to evoke what I “saw” in memory. I found that the common old question, “What was it like?” stimulated recollection and recruited words and images that made my sense of the thing remembered, a place or a smell or the glint of light on water, much more accessible to me than I could have anticipated. It became a discipline for me, always to keep a scene before my eyes and to be ready to value and explore any detail that presented itself to me with an especially pungent or plangent specificity. I wrote much of the book in a darkened room. This was not intended as part of the experiment, but it may have contributed to it. My memories were often as bright as dreams and often as highly detailed. Only the place is actually remembered in the book. None of the characters or events are real. The point was to let my imagination take on the colorations of memory and interpret the place, as music might do.
Flatness of characterization seemed to me a problem to be solved, since it was true then, as it is now, that I have to feel I am being fair to my characters at very least — not giving them faults or limitations that would make them my helpless victims, the easy objects of my praise or blame. I decided that compassion as a discipline would preclude this, and would give them both dimension and a certain latitude, in the sense that I would be giving them real options. Writers always say characters surprise their authors, and I thought that would be likelier to happen if I had not judged them at the outset and would not judge them at any point in the story. Ruth to me meant mercy and graciousness.
Jennifer Egan on ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’
The challenge in developing the voice of the novel was to figure out that there were to be many voices — many styles and technical choices. It was only when I had three stories, written in very different ways about different but related people, that I understood that I wanted to write a whole book that way. The hardest part was finding enough ways to tell stories, so that I could stick to my plan of using a unique approach and voice for each chapter. At a certain point, my bag of tricks began to feel very light. I had some big failures: Epic poetry was a bust. I still regret that I couldn’t find a way to include epic poetry and PowerPoint in a single book.
Junot Díaz on ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’
The novel had me lost the entire process. The beginning only revealed itself at the end. Very frustrating to find yourself having to start at the beginning again, but that’s how this writing game is. Rarely anything linear about it. In the end I handed the book to my editor convinced that what I had written was a colossal failure. I spent the next eight months demoralized about the 11 years I had wasted on the book. Even after the awards, etc., it took a long time before I let myself look on the novel with any kindness.