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His master’s voice

A tribute to the great American novelist Philip Roth at 80.

I’d taken the train out to East Hampton, Long Island, bringing with me to read only the first volume of John Cowper Powys’s Wolf Solent. This was an ambiguous mission I was on – I’d been invited to a very nice rich girl’s family’s summer house, and I’m justified in calling her a girl because this was the summer after my first year of college and I was 19, a boy of 19. We’d been only friends at college but might be more, away from college: that was the ambiguous mission. I didn’t know what I wanted.

On the train I stared out the window, not making it past more than a chapter of the Powys. The girl and her mother picked me up at the station, a five-minute drive there and back, just long enough that by the time we entered the house, through the kitchen, the girl’s younger brother was caught in the act of pulling from the broiler two overdone, smouldering lobsters, their red partly blacked. The mother chided him, but affectionately, and insisted the lobsters be dumped immediately in the trash. I thought, I’ll eat those, but no. This was a period in my life when I was persistently being startled, to the point of violation, by the behaviour of the wealthy. No reading – not Powys, nor F Scott Fitzgerald, nor Karl Marx – could have prepared me to witness such a thing in real life. We ate something other than lobsters. Then I was shown to the guest room. It was beautifully quiet, with a scattering of books on the shelves.

An evening seemed to yawn before me – the girl and I would have time to be confused about one another tomorrow and the next day. Everything was done very graciously in this house, no hurry. Left alone there with ponderous Powys, I reached instead for a book I hadn’t known existed: Philip Roth’s novella The Breast.

I’d at that point in my reading life kept a useless partition against Roth, who, thanks to the intimidating aura generated by a paperback copy of Letting Go on my mother’s shelves, I’d decided was a best-selling writer of grown-up realist novels of a sort that couldn’t possibly interest me. Oh judgemental and defended youth! But wait, now I had to consider the claims of the book’s dust jacket, that Roth worked in the realm of morbid fantasy, too. The realm of Kafka. This wasn’t fair, I thought. Kafka should belong to me.

Alone in the East Hampton guest room, I gobbled The Breast in one gulp. That’s how it came about, that’s how I began taking Roth aboard, the first tiny dose a kind of inoculation to make me ready for the long readerly sickness I still endure. For it is a sickness, most especially for a reader who wants to be a writer, to open oneself to a voice as torrential and encompassing, as demanding and rewarding, as that of Roth.

My situation in the East Hampton summer house was the stuff of Jewish comedy, if I’d had my Jewish antennae up. Had the brother been played by Christopher Walken, I was in a scene from Annie Hall. But I not only didn’t have my Jewish antennae up, I didn’t know I possessed any. By chance, and unlike a majority of Jews, I’d been raised so as not to take being Jewish, or in my case half-Jewish, in any way personally. I’d have to acquire those antennae elsewhere, by my reading.

It took overtly Jewish-American writing – by Bernard Malamud, who’d retired but was still lingering, thrillingly, around at the college the girl and I attended, and Saul Bellow, and yes, sometimes Roth, who is sometimes, when it serves the cause of the writing, overtly Jewish – to illuminate the connection between what I knew semi-consciously from the writing of the less-overt, such as Nathanael West or Barry Malzberg or Norman Mailer, as well as from sources like Groucho Marx and Abbie Hoffman and my Uncle Fred. What was it that was illuminated? That something aggravated and torrential in my voice, or perhaps I should call it my attempt at having a voice, was cultural in origin, even if aggravated and torrential frequently in the cause of disputing or even denying that point of origin.

As Roth points out, the books aren’t Jewish because they have Jews in them. The books are Jewish in how they won’t shut up or cease contradicting themselves, they’re Jewish in the way they’re sprung both from harangue and from defence against harangue, they’re Jewishly ruminative and provocative. Roth once said of Bellow that he closed the distance between Damon Runyon and Thomas Mann – well, given the generation of reader I’m from, Roth in turn closed the difference between Saul Bellow and Mad magazine. That’s to say, once I’d gained access to what he had to offer, Roth catalysed my yearnings to high seriousness with the sense that the contemporary texture of reality demanded not only remorseless interrogation, but also remorseless caricature and ribbing. Contemporary reality, including perhaps especially the yearning to high seriousness, needed to be serially goosed.

Speaking of caricature, I’m aware I may appear to have lapsed into schtick – a conflation of potted Rothian syntax and shameless confession. My only defence is that I’m employing tools Roth helped instil in me, tools that may in fact be all I’ve got: a reliance on the ear, for devising a voice and then following where the voices insists on going, and a helpless inclination to abide with the self – with one’s own inclinations and appetites – as a lens for seeing what’s willing to be seen, and as a medium for saying what wants to be said.

Call me a Counter-Roth. For it is the fate of a Roth, being the rare sort of writer whose major phases sprawl across decades, whose work encompasses and transcends modes of historical fiction, metafiction, memoir, the maximalist (or putters-in), the minimalist (or takers-out), the picaresque and counterfactual, etcetera and so forth – being the sort of writer who in his generosity half blots out the sky of possibility for those who come along after – to generate in his ambitious followers a sort of army of Counter-Roths. I’ll say it simply: the one certainty in my generation of writers, not otherwise unified, is that we all have some feeling about Roth. We can’t not. Mostly it involves some kind of strongly opinionated, half-aggrieved love.

So, another confession: more then ten years after that encounter in East Hampton, I’d become a published novelist, invited for the first time to a residence at the artist’s colony called Yaddo. By this time I’d pursued my Roth obsession to both ends of his bookshelf, as it existed at the time, as I was to continue following it, right up to the present.

On my arrival at Yaddo, a fellow writer who helped me to my room at West House mentioned famous personages who’d written masterpieces behind the various windows – Sylvia Plath here, John Cheever there – and then, opening the door to what was to be my residence and studio both, unveiled a circular turret featuring a smooth, domed ceiling: “The Breast Room,” he announced. I laughed, thinking he referred only to the shape. Then he explained that Roth, inspired by dwelling within the room’s contour, wrote The Breast in there. As with many circumstances in a young writer’s life, I was exalted and humbled simultaneously – having been delivered by the Yaddo invitation into what I thought was my maturity, it turned out I was again to suckle at the fount of apprenticeship. Incidentally, if this story isn’t true, I don’t ever want to find out.

Of course, I’m beyond my apprenticeship now and no longer even remotely young. In fact, as a college professor, it’s sometimes my duty to counsel other young aspirants navigating an overwhelming encounter with Roth.

I’m chagrined to admit that a quite brilliant English major under my care recently quit work on a thesis on Roth’s 1974 novel My Life As a Man, in despair. With his permission, I quote from the email he sent when, like Nixon, he resigned.

“What can I say about Philip Roth that Philip Roth hasn’t already said (and denied) (and said again) himself? It’s farcical how much My Life As a Man exemplifies this tendency. I was being pretty arrogant: if established literary critics cannot produce the kind of scholarship I feel is worthy of Roth’s fiction, how could I possibly think myself capable of rising to that challenge, without even reading the work my work would supposedly surpass?

“I feel like a guy taking on the marines with a single pocketknife. Going forward, here are the options, as I see them: 1) Write as much of a shitty first draft of this chapter as I can and send it to you, then come back to school next semester and write chapters three and four while taking a fuller course load than I did this semester and applying to jobs so that I have somewhere to live and something to do when I graduate. Or, 2) Tolerate the ‘Incomplete’ on my transcript and take Prof Dettmar’s ‘Irony in the Public Sphere’ instead. My gut is strongly telling me to choose the latter.

“I know I fucked up. If I had done the substantial work I should have done earlier this semester, I would either have made this decision at a better time or not made it at all. But here I am. This is OK with me. I’m not going to grad school and I won’t be any less fascinated by Philip Roth in letting go of my academic obligation to his books.” I quote at length here simply for the pleasure of hearing how the disease has taken hold of the email itself, which bubbles with Rothian vitality and even arrives at the key phrase, “Letting Go”.

I only ever made Philip Roth laugh twice, to my knowledge. That’s weak recompense for the thousand hilarities Roth’s bestowed on me – bitter snorts of recognition, giggles of astonishment at narrative derring-do, sheer earthy guffaws. Of course, I’ve only ever met him a couple of times. The first time I made Roth laugh was in recounting a conversation I overheard while in line for a hot dog between innings at Shea Stadium, between two boorish men confessing to one another their preference for a glimpse of tight spandex even over that of bare skin; I mention this if only for the pleasure of bragging that Roth and I suffer the same fannish encumbrance, for anyone who knows the inside of Shea Stadium has earned whatever joy can be salvaged on the hot dog line.

The second time I made Roth laugh is more important to me: we stood together in the late stages of an Upper West Side brunch party, where I dandled my infant son while Roth looked quite reasonably impatient to be elsewhere. In a quiet panic, bobbing up and down to sooth the six-month-old, I found myself monologuing to Roth’s increasingly arched eyebrows. Finally, straining for a reference that would interest my hero, I turned the boy’s head slightly to the side, displaying the fat curve of his cheek, and said, “It resembles one of those disembodied unshaven cigar-smoking heads in a Philip Guston painting, don’t you think?” The juxaposition of my pink son and the grotesques of Guston, like the earlier juxtaposition of Shea and Spandex, did the trick. And this was another lesson from Roth: In putting across what wants putting across, in seeking a rise from the listener, do whatever it takes, grab any advantage, employ even the baby in your arms. I would have juggled the baby if it would have helped.

To finish, then, with a final confession, according to the Rothian principle of cryptoconfessional storytelling: that though you may hold the cards quite close to your vest, it is best to create the thrilling illusion of having laid oneself generously bare, of having told all. That’s simply to say, I don’t want to leave you hanging in that East Hampton guest room. Did I get anywhere with the very nice rich girl? The answer is no. I saw as little action in East Hampton as I’d seen of those lobsters on their voyage from the broiler to the kitchen garbage pail. Less, even, than I’d seen of the lobsters. The only breast I fondled in East Hampton was Roth’s.

Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and critic. His essay collection “The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc” is published in paperback this month by Vintage (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis