Hello, Failure

Of all the enemies of literature, success is the most insidious

Friday, June 11, 2004

Failure of the Day: Distraction

I myself wouldn’t mind a distraction from the week-long fetishization of the corpse of a heartless imbecile but I’ll have no such relief. It’s got a nice Russian doll quality to it anyway: my TV is a box and the only thing in the box is a picture of another box. I have meaner things to say about it but I’d just as soon keep them to myself.

My real distraction is the staggeringly great aforementioned Philip Roth book I am reading at the moment. It’s an absolute gold mine. I eschewed him for so many years—my perception of him was seriously skewed by seeing part of the movie of Portnoy’s Complaint, which of course is not fair, and nowhere even near fair, but can you do? The thing is, my perception has been utterly borne out in all but one of his novels that I’ve read so far. Of his earlier novels, The Anatomy Lesson is as painfully half-worlded as The Ghost Writer, if not moreso.

I’m coining that—as in “he’s a real half-worlder”—especially for Roth as a term pertaining to gender bias. His assumption that the male perspective is universal is so absolute and pervasive in his writing that it really does seem that the other half of the world doesn’t exist at all except as various orifices to be filled. It’s a world of men and cunts!—That was my perception of Roth’s writing after my bit of Portnoy, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t dead-on. And I’m not even particularly sensitive to these kinds of things; most of what is hollered at for being sexist I think are just tiresome examples of stupidity more than anything else, and practiced by men and women alike.

That said, The Anatomy Lesson is still staggeringly great, especially for my purposes, which should be quite obvious considering it is a book about a guy who gets sick and goes to a lot of doctors who help him not one whit. The prose is an exercise in glorious precision but with none of the desert patches of Updike. I read it with pen in hand to mark the phrases and sentences that strike me, and I’ve yet to leave a single page unmarked. I can’t help it. Good writing gets to me. Even if it was written by a guy who—in the classic words spoken to a guy I used to know by a Berkeley professor—couldn’t see past the tip of his own white dick.

Maybe it’s my failing that I can’t hate the art of flawed people. I still like Woody Allen’s movies and Picasso’s paintings, too.


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