The writer is named Peter Tarnopol and his autobiography is labeled a novel, but Roth has never seemed closer to the obvious facts of his personal history.To heighten the feeling of veracity, he eschews the comic highs and lows of “Portnoy” for a more flat, almost essayistic style.This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996.
It confirms that despite his superb gifte as a mimic, tummler and hyperbolist Roth is only good at fantastioating materials from his own life.
As a satirist of Nixon or Bill Veeck he is clever but uninspired.
” The author has no handle on his material; he is still too close to it; despite the analysis he's been unable to work it through. No matter how I may contrive to transform low taactuality into high art, that is invariably what is emblazoned across the face of the narrative, in blood: HOW COULD SHE? As in his other work, but more so, Roth makes an intense effort to transcend “art” and get down to unpleasant facts, which consist mainly of unpleasant facts about other people. “What made me so pathetic in dealing with Maureen in her wildest moments was that I simply could not believe that anybody like her could exist in a world that had been advertised to Peter's oyster.”But Peter chooses such women, and partly because they are so much like his adoring, impossible mother.
When Peter reaches the point of telling how Maureen had tricked him into marriage, feigning pregnancy by buying a specimen of someone else's urine, he admits that he's tried and failed for five years to get the story into his fiction (just as Roth struggled in earlier books with the whole subject of marriage): “I cannot make it credible—probably because I don't entirely believe it myself. Roth's hero is typically obsessed by the difference between the world of his childhood, when he was his mother's “young prince,” and the fate that awaited him as an adult, especially at the hands of Woman. There are usually two sorts of women in Roth's heroes' lives: bitchy, castrating women who attract and destroy them, and doting sexual slaves who eventually bore them.
Spielvogel, who delivered the punch line of “Portnoy”—“Now vee may perhaps to begin”—keeps his word and returns under his own name to treat Peter to five years of analysis.
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He considers Peter “among the nation's top young narcissists in the arts,” and causes him anguish by writing him up in a psychiatric journal—another tormentor, like the wife, like the tyrannical alimony judge who is described as “the Stalin of Divorce Court Communism: From each according to his ability, to each according to her need.” “My Life as a Man” can be a very funny book, despite the subdued tone and the general misery.Never in our history have Americans been so driven to expose themselves; in our recent revaluation of all values, privacy has been one of the big losers.Classical psychoanalysis — which, though a “talking cure,” is essentially an interior dialogue, as private as the confession‐box—has been more and more displaced by consciousness‐raising groups, encounter therapies and other techniques which seek an alleviation of guilt and isolation by comparing private lives, not simply exploring one's own.Unable to abolish the demon through his work or even to describe it convincingly, though it dominates all his waking thoughts, Peter turns to direct autobiography in a desperate gesture of exorcism.Perhaps the “facts” will speak for themselves and provide relief where the imagination found itself blocked and thwarted. Whatever therapeutic value such a book has for its author, the literary problem remains.Maureen Tarnopol, who hooks Peter unto wedlock and maneuvers prodigiously to keep him there, is of course the chief tormentor; she plays the female‐monster role assigned to the mother in Portnoy's Complaint” but here the hero can't muster a grain of love to qualify his sense of outrage.Maureen has the same dramaturgical genius as Sophie Portnoy, the same histrionic powers of manipulation, persistence and emasculation.If there has been a funnier novel in the last 10 years, or one that exploits psychoanalysis and the “family romance” more brilliantly, I don't know what it could be.Surprisingly, in the light of his ambivalent, even degrading attitudes toward women, Roth's book had the most visible influence on the emerging new women writers, who were just getting into the confessional swing when “Portnoy” appeared.The result of this conversion was three thoroughly dismal and mostly unfunny books, “Our Gang” (an inept, mean‐spirited satire on Nixon), “The Breast” (a grotesque fantasy of sexual metamorphosis and infantile regression) and “The Great American Novel” (an aimless, hyped‐up catalogue of big‐league baseball fantasies).This last book did contain a few marvelous scenes of Paul Bunyanesque Americana, tall tales woven out of the circus side of baseball history, but after a hundred pages Roth lost all notion of what to do next and simply gassed on repetitiously, hoping to be saved by sheer bad taste.