Book Review | I Married a Communist by Philip Roth


commAnyone who’s paid any attention whatsoever to my reading habits knows that Philip Roth is far and away my favorite author. I’ve made it through about half of his books now and while I Married a Communist didn’t quite earn the title of my favorite Roth book, it is easily in the top five.

Many of the novels I’ve enjoyed by Roth I would hesitate to recommend to someone who’s never experienced him before. Often times they build on one another, or I think it’s necessary to know certain things about his life or his philosophy to get what you need to from his books. However, I Married a Communist certainly stands on its own and makes an excellent starting point for someone who’s never experienced him before.

There were many reasons I loved this book, not the least of which was the total saturation with McCarthy-era politics. The characters were rich, the book was complete. With other authors I’ll often read a book and be left wondering what happened after it was over, or I’ll be curious about details regarding what happened before the story began. Roth manages to start right in the midst of the story and yet the novel is 100% complete. Though I loved the book I did not feel like it needed a single additional word, nor were any of the words superfluous.

As always, there were many little sentences that proved Roth’s understanding of the human condition.

“I’d say to Doris, ‘Why doesn’t he leave? Why can’t he leave?’ And do you know what Doris would answer? ‘Because he’s like everybody – you only realize things when they’re over.”

or

“I headed down the stairs with the seething self-disgust of someone young enough to think that you had to mean everything you said.”

My politics are about as left as you can get and this book focuses on left-wing politics, which is a bonus for me. However, there were several sections regarding the inability of a writer/artist/etc. to be political, and while I generally disagree with that point of view…well, I was a bit swayed.

“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other – they are also in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t to be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow the chaos. To let it in. You must let it in.”

Overall, this book reminded me that Roth is the most awarded living author for a reason. Every word he writes is there for a purpose and he rarely oversteps his reach. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in literary fiction.

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