Two recent events have directed my attention to the acclaimed generation of post-World War II American novelists. First, I read my first Saul Bellow novel, his celebrated Herzog (actually I’d previously read half of The Dean’s December). Second, the Man Booker International, a sort of cheesy spin-off of the Man Booker Prize judged by only three people who give the award to an author rather than a book, awarded their 2011 prize to Philip Roth–but not without objections. Indeed, one of the three judges, Carmen Callil, actually resigned in protest, saying, “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”
Never mind that Callil might have other interests in play (her publishing house printed the memoir of Roth’s ex-wife). I can understand where she’s coming from. Allow me to circuitously explain why.
As I read Bellow’s novel Herzog, two courses of thought ran through my mind. The first was envy of Bellow’s obviously excellent prose; he has a creative way with metaphor and his descriptions can be brilliantly focused. The second was irritation. Our protagonist, Moses Herzog, is a fairly successful professor with an unfinished book in his closet, a preposterously evil ex-wife, a preposterously easy Spanish lover, and a preposterous mountain of emotional problems which cause him to spend all his time writing letters to people in his head. I thought this was going to be funny, but ultimately it ended up tiresome.
Herzog, see, is a character who suffers from a disorder I call Pointless White Male Angst.
pointless white male angst. (noun). Disorder suffered by numerous men in late-20th-century American fiction, all of whom are written by male authors. Characterized by modest professional success, some measure of material well-being, but deep and seemingly unending wells of moroseness brought about by excessive concern with mortality, repressed sexuality, or a vague, unidentified discontent which the reader is asked to blame on American materialistic culture. In most cases the sufferer seeks help in the form of a strong woman who serves no other narrative purpose. In many cases the sufferer is Jewish. Examples: Moses Herzog, Rabbit Angstrom, Bob Slocum, Bruce Gold, Albert Corde, Ben Turnbull, Duddy Kravitz, Alexander Portnoy, Mickey Sabbath, Nathan Zuckerman, Frank Bascombe, Gary and Chip Lambert.
Variants include emotional problems caused by immediate crises and therefore not actually angst per se but genuine distress (Walter Berglund, Nick Shay, John Yossarian), teenagers (Holden Caulfield), and those rare characters who are actually sympathetic (Yossarian, Alvy Singer). Notice that there are four academic characters and two writers on the list. Notice, too, that Philip Roth appears three times. I could have even added Roth’s fictionalized character “Philip Roth.”
Which bring us back to Philip Roth, who, aside from a few admittedly great novels, has expended a career on the development of Pointless White Male Angst and especially its sexual side. Portnoy, remember, had sex with his family’s dinner long before American Pie. Mickey Sabbath is maybe, after Humbert Humbert, the most sexually depraved character ever written. But Humbert Humbert is strangely content, and Vladimir Nabokov’s prose is beyond comparison.
So I definitely understand Carmen Callil’s point of view. Roth, like Bellow and post-Catch 22 Heller, is a gifted writer with good-to-astounding prose skills but generally unable to write characters who live outside the narrow purview of his own experience. All too many of Roth’s novels expand on the same theme: a privileged Jewish man is obsessed with sexual exploitation of the female, perhaps as an escape from an all-pervading pessimism which settles on his mind like a thick, low fog.
I’m even more sympathetic to Callil because she’s female. Roth’s women are almost all sexual props for the men–Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theater are all about male libidos. In Bellow’s Herzog, too, there are only two important women: Madeleine, a calculating villain who tries to make Herzog’s life miserable and Ramona, a hot Spaniard who gives Herzog lots of lovin’. The fact that the female characters were all cardboard cutouts, there to either emasculate or, uh, erect the protagonist, made me think of the novel as having a downright 18th-century approach to gender and femininity. It’s no wonder women feel excluded from that kind of author.
There is, of course, a place for angst in our literature. Life is short and then we die. There’s a lot of suffering in the world. You and I are going to lose a lot of people and chances and pleasures. A friend suggested to me that characters like Sabbath, Herzog, and Turnbull have the time “to actually think about the human condition”; in that sense, their comparative success gives them the “leisure” necessary to start worrying. Maybe they’re antithetical to my own young, idealistic mindset (“there’ll be time to worry later!”), but I also feel like there must be ways of addressing issues like mortality without creating characters who navel-gaze, whine, and lust. And why are they all so academic, so masculine? Where are all the angsty women?
Maybe it’s just that I’m fed up with Pointless White Male Angst, but very nearly an entire generation of authors is simply uninteresting to me. Their writings are outdated and many of them are not even dead. The preoccupation with sex seems gauche now, the preoccupation with death neurotic; the paranoid disposition must have been a child of the Cold War. The lily-white, all-male casts of characters were regressive even then. Even the male facing death alone is better-portrayed elsewhere, by Chandler, Hemingway, and the family Corleone.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if, in 50 years, Roth, Updike, Bellow, Richler, Heller, Ford and Delillo are mainly remembered, outside of a couple truly standout novels, as stylistic virtuosi and solid craftsmen who took the easy way out in settling for dime-a-dozen moroseness in the face of luxury. Only the privileged can afford to be morose. The people who have real stuff to complain about write Invisible Man.