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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Politics in the Novel

There are many reasons to write a novel. Among the worst are to prove a point or settle a score. Philip Roth tries to do both with I Married A Communist, a lengthy, invective-loaded tirade published under the guise of a novel.

I Married A Communist takes place during the peak of the McCarthy era, and concerns itself primarily with the treacherous, life-ruining betrayals of that time. This is not exactly new territory. American writers have been beating this time-period and its ills to death since the immediate aftermath of the hearings and blacklists. Some of these efforts are intelligent rebuttals to a time of madness, but Roth seems to be using the era as an excuse to proudly exclaim his own radicalism and to slander his ex-wife.

The story centers on radio actor Ira Ringold (Iron Rinn to his fans) and his openly secret allegiance to Marxian economics. Roth's narrator/alterego is the reclusive novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who is talking over the tragedy of Ira Ringold with Ira's brother and Nathan's former teacher Murray, over forty years later. This frame-story device has a distancing effect and causes the story to meander and drag needlessly. There is less focus on events and chronology than there should be. Also, the age of the two interlocutors causes the reader to find their perfect memories of names, dates, and even whole conversations incredulous.

Ira Ringold is a surprisingly one-note character. Roth is rightly regarded as an American master, but here he supplies his protagonist with little more than an overgrown child's sense of fairness and geopolitics. Ira's political rants are so repetitive that the reader loses the capacity to feel sympathy for him.

The novel follows Ira's story as he marries Eve Frame, an American actress on the downside of her career, and navigates the increasingly conspicuous relationship between his wife and her daughter. This is where the novel starts to run off the rails of literary work and into the territory of personal vendetta. At the time of this novel's publication Roth had just endured his own divorce, followed by his ex-wife's tell-all in which she described him as a petty tyrant and a vindictive psychopath. In the novel, Ira's life is ruined by a dishonest tell-all memoir written by his wife. Roth makes Eve a pathetic cartoon of self-loathing, anti-Semitism, and unrequited mother love that it is hard to keep reading passage after passage of his obvious contempt for the character representing his own former wife.

The idea of Roth, one of the foremost authors of our time, writing about an incredibly interesting, if over-covered, period of American history, was a thrilling prospect. It is indeed unfortunate that his personal troubles and need to prove himself right got in the way of what could have been an interesting novel.

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