Been a while since we had a long Philip Roth article.

The construction of his novels is often sloppy. Questions such as point of view (beloved of teachers of creative writing) matter little to him. Take “American Pastoral” (1997). This is one of Mr. Roth’s finest novels; yet technically it is a mess. It begins with the main character, the Swede, presented to us from the outside—by Zuckerman, first as he seemed when he was his boyhood athletic hero and then as a rather dull businessman in late middle age. Next, at a class reunion, the Swede’s brother tells Zuckerman at impossible length of how this dull life has been broken in half by the Weather Underground-like terrorist activities of a beloved teenage daughter. The rest of the novel is backtracking to show us how this happened and what the consequences were. Zuckerman enters the Swede’s mind, explaining this narrative leap with what sounds like a throwaway line—”Anything more I wanted to know, I’d have to make up.” It shouldn’t work, but it does. Mr. Roth’s certainty that what he is saying is important pulls the reader with him, even through a long digression on the state of the Swede’s glove-manufacturing business.

Mr. Roth’s indifference to structure likely concerns critics like myself much more than readers. His tone of voice can be so persuasive, even enchanting, his reflections so interesting, his ability to present the complexities of all that “human stuff” so revealing, that readers gallop along caring nothing for the shape of the book. Nevertheless, it is also true that the opening chapters of many of his novels are better than what follows. The first 100 pages of “The Plot Against America” (2004), for instance, are a brilliant account of a trip to Washington, D.C., in the 1930s. The wonder and excitement of visiting the nation’s capital, a realization for the narrator’s family of the American Dream, are painfully disturbed by overt anti-Semitism. But then the novel drifts beyond what is credible and even into silliness. The impetus that gave such authority to the first part has exhausted itself.

The best novelists find a means of compensating for what they don’t actually do very well. They make a virtue of their deficiencies. Because Mr. Roth is not very good at presenting things dramatically, he tends to dodge the obligatory crescendos.

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I couldn’t make it past the op-ed piece that is the first 3 pages of The Human Stain.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

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5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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