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.

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More from Wyatt Mason:

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The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

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