Pub date November 28, 2007


Reading a work of fiction is a little like getting into someone else’s car for a trip that someone else has planned without consulting you: it’s an act of trust. The car pulls up and you climb in. You hope that the headlights and brakes are in working order and that there is no liquor on the driver’s breath. You assume that the driver knows the route, even if you don’t; you assume the destination is a worthy one, even if you’ve never heard of it. Discreetly you fasten your seat belt. The car pulls away from the curb, perhaps smoothly, perhaps amid squeals of burning rubber.

You might soon find yourself bouncing along unpaved rural roads or roaring through hairpin curves in the mountains, wishing you’d remembered your Dramamine. Snow, rain, fog, sleet, sunshine, boring vistas of cornfields, stunning views from turnouts, all are possible — and eventually you’re there, wherever it was you were meant to be taken. You didn’t get lost, the car didn’t crash, no one was killed or maimed, the journey was memorable if not always agreeable, and this is what we call literature. If you don’t like the destination, you make a silent note to yourself and, thumb extended, wait for another car to come along.

In Philip Roth’s new novel, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 292 pages, $26), there is a good deal of perseveration about the Library of America, our pantheon of literary immortals — of greatness, that great American obsession. Roth, notably, has already been admitted to this black-jacket collection, and his alter ego in the novel, the now-aged Nathan Zuckerman, a bundle of genitourinary woes and other peeves of the sort that afflict the solitary when they find themselves tossed into the simmering kettle of metropolitan life, is keen to see his late mentor, E.I. Lonoff, similarly enshrined. But Zuckerman isn’t the only character interested in Lonoff’s legacy; there’s also Richard Kliman, a 28-year-old literary ambitionist. Kliman wants to write Lonoff’s life and believes he’s caught an exciting whiff of incest in the dead writer’s story.

Zuckerman and Kliman, needless to say, aren’t fated to be chummy, though they do meet in an impressive shower of word sparks. Google tells us that Lonoff is probably a semiportrait of Bernard Malamud, author of The Natural and a friend of Roth’s, but the particulars of Lonoff’s fictive life — a house deep in the Berkshires, a flitting shadow of sexual transgression — struck me as a mingling of details in the lives of real-lifers J.D. Salinger and Henry Roth.

The other Roth — Philip — may or may not be a great writer, whatever that means (more anon), but he is certainly a good writer. He pulls up to the curb in an unassuming rig, and within moments we are under way, the scenery gliding by, the author in complete control, with a route and destination plainly in mind. The language is effective, not showy; its pull is strong and steady. The writer of these words has obviously thought about life as he’s lived it; the experience of growing older is rendered with vivid precision and an equally vivid lack of sentimentality. The author has nothing to prove, only something to tell, and we are only too pleased to listen, as the journey ticks by and the pages turn one after the other.

"Good writer," like "friend," is possibly too temperate an expression for our intemperate times. Gore Vidal once suggested that the good is the enemy of the great — a splendid aphorism — but he seemed to understand great as gifted, with good being highly polished, self-approving, and perhaps slightly resentful ordinariness, the glittering gemstone that turns out to be zircon. That is the truth about most glittering gemstones. Yet great, in our demotic culture, carries another meaning: it means "celebrated," and celebration is often the result of telling people, intentionally or not, what they wish to hear. Good writers can do this as well as bad writers.

Being considered a great writer in this sense is a political achievement, like winning the presidency. It’s a symbiosis that has to do with the writer’s times and the writer’s relation to those times. How does the writer see the times, and how is he or she seen by them? What if the relationship is adversarial? What happens if the writer is inclined to commit the unpardonable sin of telling the truth? Does the Library of America take these factors into account?

Long ago I noticed, and I continue to notice, that the animus at the heart of most unfavorable comment about fiction is You didn’t write the book I wanted you to! I am a disappointed consumer in a land where the customer is always right! Much favorable comment merely inverts this proposition; such noise is idiotic but at least doesn’t hurt the writer’s feelings. (Imaginative writers bruise easily, like peaches.) Lost in this welter of vainglory and petulance is the patient attempt to understand what was attempted, measure what was achieved, and describe the gap between the two. Some dare call this criticism, and while criticism might lack the autoerotic thrill of anointing the great or carrying out drive-by shootings on literary misfits, it remains our only trustworthy method of separating the good from the rest.