Shortly after transforming into a 155-pound breast, David Kepesh, the hero of three Philip Roth novels, asks himself: “Did fiction do this to me?” His enormous areola, about the size of a baby, has to be sprayed daily with anesthetic, but as a devoted literature professor he decides it’s worth the pain. He’s “out-Kafkaed Kafka.” Instead of writing about the fantastic, he’s become it: “This is my great work of art!”
One of six Roth books reissued by the Library of America this month, The Breast (1972) is a swift exercise in making the freakish appear normal, but it’s not so far from autobiography as it would seem. Roth, too, was once perceived as a hormonal aberration—a “crazed penis,” as he put it. His characters enact sexual fantasies with items from the family refrigerator, so readers assumed he did too. People would stop him or just gawk on the street; eventually it got so bad he had to leave New York.
For Roth, the idea of a man suddenly morphing into art is realistic, even practical. Most of his 22 novels feature men who closely resemble him: born in Newark, overaccomplished, neurotic. Three of his books are about famous writers named Philip Roth. Harold Bloom recently joked that Roth now writes so quickly he finishes a book and starts the next one on the same page. “So I work,” he said in a 2000 interview with The New Yorker. “I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.”
Jewish dads all over the country (or at least mine) have been waiting for the last decade for Roth to get the Nobel Prize. The Library of America’s decision to compile Roth’s works in eight volumes—more than Faulkner and Nabokov combined—is some consolation. These initial two volumes, collecting his first six books, cover all of Roth’s novels before 1972 and feature some of his most raw and intimate scenes. A recurring motif in the early novels is a man who sits on the toilet all day as his wife flits in and out of the bathroom, cheering him on.
In the wistful 1968 essay “On Not Being a Jew,” which described how hip it was for gentiles to know about things like challah and being unhappy, Edward Hoagland wrote that Roth was the era’s best writer because he could do more than just provoke. “The point is he knows about people,” Hoagland wrote. “He’s a whole man.” Roth’s characters scream and have panic attacks at the dinner table, but they’re well aware of their flaws (in Portnoy’s Complaint, each member of the family has a designated part of the house they go to for weeping). Unlike recent Roth novels, such as The Human Stain, which deal with larger, more history-heavy problems, in these early novels no one pretends to believe in anything too lofty. If most people spend 80 percent of their time thinking about themselves, says Libby Herz in Letting Go (1962), “I was up to about eighty-five.” Her lover feels the same way: “Though subject to his share of depressions . . . he cannot enjoy any of it thoroughly (and thereby feel his true and tragic worth) because of a nagging doubt that he is very lucky and ought to be thankful and shut up.”
Roth’s one early foray into writing about gentiles, When She Was Good (1967), involves grander concerns—mostly “hell” and being “pure”—but the book seems overwrought. Lutherans named Whitey, Willard, and Lucy (“the word ‘pug’ had been invented to describe her nose”) are prone to outbursts like “Oh why can’t people be good?” They’re every bit as serene and dignified and good at crocheting or deer hunting as the stereotype. (“You stupid Goyim,” Roth writes in Portnoy’s Complaint, “how strong and manly you are.”)
Roth once defined the writer’s voice as “something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head,” and in a typical story, he writes with a barreling, romantic intensity. Parents are hovering birds “beating frantic wings,” and sex is on everyone’s minds. To the original question about his boob-body—did fiction do this to me?—David Kepesh’s answer is no: “Hormones are hormones,” he says, “and art is art.” But Roth merges the two, transcending his alter ego. In its austere black volumes, the Library of America has canonized some luxurious fantasies, but also a sweeping portrait of middle-class angst. Roth gives domestic dilemmas the weight they deserve. As Alexander Portnoy puts it, reflecting on hours spent alone testing condoms in his basement: “Oy, civilization and its discontents!”