Wow. PR was not kidding with his sophomore novel, was he? After his first book was a novella and five short stories, he comes roaring back with this behemoth of complexity, a 600-page moderately exhausting delve into interconnected lives. These lives unfold with nary a thought to coherent narrative. There isn’t really a plot. Things happen, as things always seem to do, and people are affected, and ultimately they are as they are. It took me two weeks to read it, but not because I was not quite riveted by it, which I was, but only because…damn, it was long, and I have a life (or I try to).
Roth’s ear for colloquial conversation astonishes me. I just can’t get over his ability to write six-page natural conversations about nothing much that are just as frustrating and organic as real conversations, to the point that at times it was uncomfortable evocative. His character’s inner lives are complex to the point of absurdity, as our own are. There are no simple motives here, no straight-line evolutions of character. People’s selves meander, they get lost, they find what they think is the answer, they meander some more, they take action and it does or it doesn’t work out. Sometimes we don’t know what the hell they’re thinking. One of the four major characters tells his story in first-person; the others are relegated to third, but the first-person narrator is arguably the most inscrutable.
I’m in awe of the writing talent that could have produced this book. It’s too long. It wanders. It isn’t perfect. Roth was looking for further ways to set himself apart. And unfortunately a lot of the meaning is connected to the time it was published (1962) and is lost on me.
I’m just going to go lie down now and ponder my place in the universe.