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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.
More from Wyatt Mason:
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.
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.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
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.
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“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.”