For more than fifty years, Philip Roth has been a hugely prolific author. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is definitely one of the most important authors in all of contemporary American fiction. I love Goodbye Columbus, and The Ghost Writer is a great story too. But I’ve had the unfortunate experience with him that sometimes happens with authors I like, and it’s a very challenging experience. What does a reader do when a good author writes a bad book? Have you ever had an experience where there’s an author you greatly admire who ends up publishing a complete stinker?
That’s what I experienced when I read one of his newest books titled The Humbling. The sensation I felt when completing it–regretting the time I wasted–I only ever felt before when I read Victory by Joseph Conrad. Here was an author who’s one of the best in the world writing a book that’s not only bad, but had few redeeming qualities. Some critics say he hasn’t written anything good since American Pastoral, but I’d avoid making such an outrageous claim. His book Everyman, written not that long before The Humbling, is a great book. It deserves to be placed alongside Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Ravelstein by Bellow as a book that explores the actual process of confronting death. Everyman was written with such great range of feeling that it’s not depressing–it’s enlightening.
The Humbling though is just depression porn. The main character’s miserable at the beginning, and Roth revels in explaining in greater detail why he’s miserable. For 160 pages, that’s about all that goes on. We the reader need to find some way to reach out and say “Roth, buddy, return to literature.” One critic already suggested to Roth that he write fewer books so he can spend more time on craft. I like Roth so much I’ll take just about anything I can get, but I want to urge him to go back to writing books, not pages that read like transcripts from a suicide hotline.
If you’re a Roth fan who thinks I’m being too critical of The Humbling, I invite you to respond and explain what I may have missed in the book. I must have missed something. I know Roth is better.