Sentences — September 22, 2008, 12:34 pm

An Object of That Desire

Here’s a clause that put me on orange alert last week: “but in the end this little novel possesses neither the ambition nor the scope of the author’s big postwar trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain).” Its author is Michiko Kakutani, and the object of her displeasure is Philip Roth’s latest novel, Indignation (Houghton Mifflin). Several months ago, after I read the novel when it was sent to reviewers, I posted on the matter of how a familiarity or lack thereof with Roth’s several dozen earlier novels might inform a reviewer’s consideration and evaluation of his latest book. Here, we see one use, and to my mind misuse, of a reader’s familiarity with an author’s work.

Although Kakutani’s review should not be distilled down to the clause above—she does praise the book’s “consummate poise” and concedes “a couple of bravura touches”—her ultimate conclusion is congruent with that clause: that Indignation “doesn’t amount to a full-fledged novel.” As evidence for what a “full-fledged” novel would be, Kakutani cites the three earlier Roth novels of his “American Trilogy,” which she asserts possessed greater ambition and scope. Setting aside an evaluation of Roth’s novel, consider Kakutani’s criteria for its evaluation. Because the “little” novel is slimmer is scope than earlier Roth novels, because it does not possess the “ambition” of those books, it is invariably a lesser endeavor.

“An uplifting desire to achieve or obtain,” Webster’s Second International Unabridged defines “ambition”, adding, “also, an object of that desire.” Kakutani would have us understand that novels, as objects of such desire, may be gauged in their full-fledgedness by their scope, by the intensity of their uplifting desire to achieve or obtain—not by what they obtain. Because Roth has written larger books—larger in size and larger in scope—a smaller book, her argument would have it, must therefore be a lesser book.

This, I would like to make clear, is a miscarriage of criticism. A reader is welcome to prefer long books to short ones, to prefer sweeping multigenerational sagas that chart the fluxes of a society to novels written from the frozen point of view of a single, sorrowful soul. But we should understand that these general categories are matters of taste, not criteria for judgment of the integrity of a given work. Roth’s ambition in Indignation, his desire to achieve or obtain, is not lesser than that of earlier books. Rather, it is different than that of earlier books because, of course, it is not the same book.

As to the matter of the nature of that ambition, as to how that ambition is realized, Kakutani’s review does not offer a convincing answer. Whereas, these more interesting questions are more ably chased down elsewhere in The Times, in The New York Review of Books, and, from a Harper’s Senior Editor, in The National.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today