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Philip Roth has an essay at the back of the paperback of Portnoy’s Complaint about how the first lines of his novels came to him. It’s a nice example of how Roth can take a tiny literality and squeeze more metaphorical substance from it than would seem possible (and, simultaneously, take a metaphor and squeeze it unto literality).
The essay is a piece of falsified autobiography ostensibly drawn from Roth’s twenties in Chicago. He’s teaching freshman comp, is involved with a woman whose father is in jail, and is trying to become a great writer, “to dazzle in my very own way and to dazzle myself no less than anyone else.” One rainy evening, Roth makes his way to a cafeteria to splurge on a dinner of rare roast beef. He loves going to the cafeteria to splurge $3 rather than the $2 he’d spend at the student commons, and he loves the sound of the “small Sicilian man with the big serving dippers who stood to the side of the guy who sliced up and served the roast beef.” We learn that beef is good, but words are better, for the small Sicilian, in a “singsong, accented delivery that gave a light musical emphasis to the first word,” repeats (“twenty-five to fifty times while I ate dinner”) an incantatory haiku: “Juice or gravy.”
Roth tells us that on one night, when he should have been grading a hundred freshman compositions and eating baked beans out of a can, he went to the cafeteria to eat alone at the same empty table and hear “the poet himself speak aloud the four-syllable haiku that always cheered me up.” Those four syllables get switched for the four chairs Roth finds empty at “his table” that night, and in front of “his” chair, empty as well, a sheet of typing paper waits “that a previous diner had forgotten or left behind at ‘my’ place”:
Typewritten on the paper, in the form of a long single-spaced unindented paragraph, were nineteen sentences that taken together made no sense at all. Though no author’s name appeared anywhere on either the front or the the back of the page, I figured that the nineteen sentences, amounting to some four hundred or so words, must be the work of a neighborhood avant-gardist with an interest in ‘experimental’ or ‘automatic’ writing. This page was surely a sample of one or the other. The author’s having forgotten this composition here at the cafeteria—while trying perhaps not to forget to remember to leave with his or her own umbrella—did not seem to me a catastrophe for literature or even for a literary career.
Roth reproduces the page. We read and recognize the nineteen first lines of his first nineteen books.
“Now this document—this gift—this burden—this prank—this incomprehensible whatever-it-was—this nothing” perplexes young Roth, but after several ensuing logical double-salchows, after young Roth and older Roth compare notes, we are led to the following disclosure: “What I eventually understood was that these were the first lines of the books that it had fallen to me to write.”
In a pig’s eye, says the reader, and all opinions of Roth’s sense of humor will line up neatly behind that utterance in two tonal rows, two very different articulations of those four syllables: either the derisive, or the delighted; the admonitory, or the altogether glad.
More from Wyatt Mason:
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
Number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD in 2011 for “furtive movements”:
The faces of Lego people were growing angrier.
Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia.
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Our congratulations to Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature