Falling into Fiction: On Meeting Philip Roth

Philip Roth, Nobel or not, means more to me than any other writer. Reading his work for the first time was like stumbling blindly into an experience both familiar and alien, and built wholly from words. These words did not represent the life I had lived, but they captured the life I’d felt. Roth’s words projected a truer than true landscape of human relationships on the wall of my Platonic cave. Through the experience of his fiction, the skirmishes between my individuality and my communities found a vocabulary and a mythology — and this magical purgatory was entirely constructed out of words. It all hung on the word.

The precise word to call just the right sense and emotion into being. For all the joy this act brings to the right reader, it is, most surely, a brutal task for the writer.

Roth, now 80, has cited this brutality in his decision to call it a career.

As disappointed as I am, I also understand.

I’ve been struggling for months to capture a particular experience in words and, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, preserve it for posterity. Yet the weight of this task has been too much for me and linguistic paralysis set in. It isn’t writer’s block I’m struggling with (I know this because there is no such thing). Rather, I feel too much responsibility to choose the right words to capture something truly unique and special. Like the speaker in Keats poem, for whom the urn was “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express/ A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,” I feel my words can’t do justice to the event.

Fiction, Life, and the Park Bench

Last March, I had the honor of presenting a paper on Roth’s work at a conference in celebration of his 80th birthday. The conference was in Newark, New Jersey, which may sound disappointing to most readers, but it is Roth’s hometown and we were treated to some opportunities that were truly remarkable for people interested in his fiction. In addition to the excellent academic conference, there were guided tours of Roth’s childhood home and other special events. The main event was a speaking engagement featuring a litany of literary dignitaries and culminating with a talk by Roth himself, followed by a birthday party at which we would occupy the same room as The Great Man.

The “life in photos” collection at the Newark Public Library was special enough, but when I broke out a copy of Goodbye, Columbus while there and read passages describing the park across the street, I was overcome. In a strange haze, I hobbled to the bench Neil sits on as he surveys the park and library, reflecting on his attachment to Newark.

Here is a point where my failings as a writer taunt me. I don’t have access to The Words.

It was as if I had briefly entered the novella I’d so long admired. For a moment, I was able to step out of my existence and into the fictional body of Neil Klugman. Postmoderns like myself love to talk about the collapse of ontological distinction between fiction and the actually-existing world, but, so help me, it happened. Either I diminished into the world Roth’s words wrought, or those words escaped the covers of their book and sat with me on that park bench. I cannot stress the strangeness of this moment enough and, if you stick with me, I will return to it again.

Falling into Fiction

Our Disney-Roth vacation also included a bus tour that took us to various Newark landmarks, Rothian and otherwise. Each bus load of wide-eyed academics was given a tour guide who gracefully read passages from Roth’s work that described the locations we visited. The readings were often, as one would expect from Roth’s work, humorous, but what stood out to me was the descriptive power of the writer’s words. Though Newark has morphed into an altogether new social space in the 50 years since Roth became its emotional historian, his words, when religiously invoked in those spaces, collapsed time and space. Just as with my experience on Neil Klugman’s park bench, Roth’s words, when experienced in the places they froze in literary time, recreated the modern world in the image of Roth’s Atlantean Jewish Newark.

In a comically appropriate way, the driver of my bus was surely the doppelganger of the elderly Arthur Miller, and, fittingly our representative from the world of fiction drove us headlong into that world.

The tour’s highlight was a dual stop at Roth’s youth. First, we pulled in front of his old school, Weequahic High, and we scurried into the cold to snap photos of ourselves in front of its entrance. Here is my own selfie:

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The postmodern romantic in me likes to think that with each of these photos, we not only commemorated our visit to literary history, we hurled ourselves into literature. This act intensified when we boarded our bus again and headed to the pleasure-dome of Alexander Portnoy’s own “Kubla Khan,” The Philip Roth House.

Located just around the corner from the high school whose daily lessons we interrupted, the house that Roth grew up in politely sits in a quiet, even pleasant neighborhood, so utterly dignified that it disorients the devoted reader of Roth’s sometimes raucous fiction. Undaunted by all this oppressive respectability, my colleagues and I tumbled out of the bus for voluminous digital photographs of Alexander Portnoy’s house of Atreus, each shutter-click seemingly inaugurating dirty jokes by extremely smart people. There was a sense that we’d been dissolved into Roth’s great fiction and were powerless to behave like folks with Ph.Ds. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself immensely, nor that I regret the dirty jokes and neighborhood disturbance. I am simply in awe of the experience.

 The Counterlife

As the day drew us closer to The Event, my metamorphosis into a fictional character escalated. At a stop on the way back to the fabulous Newark Museum, where the festivities would be held, I was approached by a reporter who asked if I’d like to comment on the tour. I didn’t catch the gentleman’s name at the time and I assumed he was a reporter for a local, Newark paper. Professionally and politely, he asked me several questions about my experience and, still on a fanboy high, I answered them. As it turned out, the reporter, Matthew Schuerman was a reporter for WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate, and he completed my voyage into Wonderland by describing me, in his article, as almost sounding like one of Roth’s “compulsive, self-doubting characters.” He might as well have introduced me as “the nebbish, Danny Anderson.” Note that I don’t blame Mr. Schuerman for this. He crafted a fine account of the event, and it isn’t his fault that I had chased the White Rabbit so far down the hole.

Oh, and, hmm…well…there’s also…you know…an…audio package that was aired and features my interview. Here’s the link: http://www.wnyc.org/story/276933-bus-tour-brings-philip-roths-newark-life/

 Out of Body Experiences and Jumping Valences

My pumpkin eventually brought me to the ball in my best suit and I lightly entered the ballroom, certain that I was going to be found out and escorted home — or at least back out into the streets of Newark, with Cory Booker nowhere around to save me. Yet this did not happen. Instead, I saw some of my fellow academics, many of whom are actual big-wigs in the profession. The fact that they were as outwardly shaken by our shared out-of-body experience as I was either comforted me or added to my terror. I could not distinguish.

Nonetheless, we chatted about our excitement, hit the fruit-and-cheese table, and I avoided the alcohol, thinking water was the wise choice given my recent postmodern dissolution into fictionality. Like Bob Hoskins’ fear of Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was sure I was dangerously close to becoming Alvin Pepler and I decided not to take unnecessary risks.

So, feigning a witty and urbane manner, I nibbled on my kiwi fruit and cheddar as the small talk took us. Events then began to snowball.

First, someone identified Paul Auster in the crowd. City of Glass is a favorite novel of mine and I involuntarily gasped at the sight of its writer. Our celery sticks were abandoned as we started to scamper into the crowd, pointing out literati as if we were playing nerd-bingo. “Look there’s Nathan Englander.” “I heard Mia Farrow was supposed to be here.” “Is that Jonathan Lethem? I almost wrote about him in my dissertation.”

Then.

My index finger rose and directed awe-inspired traffic to Don…“DeLillo! He wrote White Noise, for Pete’s sake!” I unashamedly swooned in front of my colleagues, and not because of DeLillo’s purple sweater.

By this time, the room had been transformed into a great atom, with excited electrons like myself whirling around it. I had no idea how not to buzz around in such company. I just write and teach about these people, I don’t rub shoulders with them. Yet, as a former person who was now a fictionalized avatar, I did.

Then, through an archway that divided the marble room from the marble hall that encircled it, I saw Philip Roth. He was maybe 100 feet from me, thin, healthy, and dressed in black. As if bombarded by an intense heat source, the highly charged electrons in the room tried to jump levels, from the nucleus of finger foods and plastic wine glasses, up the brief staircase to the energy source dressed like Johnny Cash. Physics got in the way of my migration, however, as the staircase served as a bottleneck that trapped me long enough for Roth to be removed to the auditorium in preparation for the talks in his honor.

C-SPAN fortunately recorded this part of the event, so I need not try and recreate my experience of it in words. Words, it seems to me, are sirens, tempting sailors to their doom. An experience like this, that was for me so meaningful and profound, begs me to not let it drift off onto a Sea of Forgetting. Never again, I suspect, will my consciousness touch the border between our physical world and that of our cultural imagination. I have been tortured by the desire to keep its magic ever existent, carrying it with me through my everyday life without it falling victim to the Everyday. I could do so, I suppose, by boring people with my story for the rest of my life, like the speaker in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” But it seems to me that this is what writing is for. The tortuous act of rendering multifarious experience into words is supposed to accomplish the work of Keats’ Grecian Urn.

Yet finding those words is brutal. Worse yet is the act of placing the words into the right relationships, and capturing not only fact and chronology, but emotion, newness, and wonder. This is, I think, what lurks behind Roth’s retirement. A lifetime of finding words, typing them, becoming discontented with them, erasing them, and replacing them is more than I can imagine bearing. Let me just say that I’ve never been more captivated by a speaker in my life. Listening to Roth read a few pages from Sabbath’s Theater was what the Romantics meant by sublime. Thank God for C-SPAN’s videographers and sound engineers. Do yourself a favor and take some time to watch it here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/311957-1

Shaking the Hand that Shook the Liver

I had assumed that Roth’s speech would be the end of the evening, and that would have been enough. There was more, however. The attendees, great and small, would gather once again in the marble Xanadu of the Newark Museum to wish Roth a happy 80th birthday and consume pieces of an amazing cake, which was baked and frosted into images of Roth’s novels. I ate a piece of Nemesis, myself.

Standing near Roth while we sang and toasted to his honor (Louise Erdrich provided a toast in Ojibwe — Roth responded that he had wanted her to “jump out of a cake”), was, I thought, the culminating moment in my escape from tyrannical reality. I was wrong.

Roth proceeded to sit down at a table and, organically and without prompt or organization, two greeting lines formed. Still uncomfortable in my alternative-universe skin, I suppose, I hesitated to join the line. Meeting Roth terrified me. I tried even to avoid eye, let alone physical, contact, as I didn’t wish for my carriage to revert back to a pumpkin at an embarrassing moment. My dissertation adviser, friend, and mentor, Judy Oster, however, pushed me into line, providing me with a gracious and loving slap in the back of the head.

As I waited, I watched others greet the man and I was jealous that they actually seemed to have something to say to him. I am, in professional circles, rather a Nobody. I feel that my great contribution is almost entirely in the classroom and not the journal. So I watched and waited my turn, jumping in and out of line to snap pictures of the others, who I now realize were just as awestruck as I was. The childlike giddiness with which they took in their own experience of the event was a truly heartwarming sight. That people who had held me in such envious awe were, in the end, not so different than me, was an oddly comforting epiphany.

As my camera was passed to a colleague for my own photo op, Roth’s intimidating gaze landed on me at last. Maybe it was the lifetime of breaking experience down into sensory-rich words that gave Roth’s eyes such an intensity, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was under observation even in conversation. Were he to write another novel, what great schmuck might I inspire?

Surrendering at the outset, I decided to get out quickly. I said, “Mr. Roth, I don’t want to take up any of your time. I just want to say that it’s a great honor to meet you and to wish you a happy birthday.”

I was satisfied with this. I had spoken to him and shaken his hand. I needed no further magic. Yet there was some. As if to convince me that I was not just a disembodied consciousness perceiving an experience, but also a being to be perceived myself, Roth held me up: “Ok. Now who are you?”

“Who?” The events of the day had somehow almost made me forget that I was a Who. Ironically, Roth had reached within the novel I’d sunk into and pulled me back out into my own skin. The creator of fiction re-established my reality. I was not “the nebbish, Danny Anderson,” I was, again, “Danny Anderson.” A name that once having recovered, I announced to the man shaking my hand. And then, “I’m just a teacher, and I wanted to say how much I admired what you did tonight in your talk. You made literature come alive in me in exactly the way I want it to come alive in my students.”

Roth politely listened to me, we shook hands again, and I ceded my place at the table to the next admirer.

I walked away, restored to my body and name, emerged from Wonderland, filled with an extraordinary magic and the dread of losing it.

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