Going Roth Mode



Newark Public Library, Main Branch. Photo by Jim Henderson, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not even necessarily the biggest Roth guy. When I got asked to cover “Philip Roth Unbound,” a festival to celebrate and “agitate” his legacy, I hadn’t read but a handful of his books. But, looking over the press release, I was drawn to how intense the schedule was set up to be: three full days of panels, live readings, and comedy shows, all in his hometown of Newark. Roth compared novel-writing to the tedium of baseball, and there was something athletic about how these events were stacked up, one after another, jam-packed with renowned writers and themes encompassing the breadth of Roth’s vision. I’d view this like a marathon, one that I’d need to read the rest of his books to prepare for. I’d read maybe six. He wrote thirty-one. We were a month out. Plenty of time, I decided.

Having read Roth’s debut, as well as Portnoy’s Complaint and the Zuckerman novels through Counterlife, I figured I’d pick up where I left off. I was most drawn to the stretch of novels he wrote in the nineties, when, at fifty, after the death of his father and the failure of his marriage, he self-exiled and “became a monk of fiction,” as David Remnick put it in a 2018 profile. “Living alone in the woods,” he wrote, Roth stayed “trained on the sentence, the page, the ‘problem of the novel at hand.’” This decade produced the novels that would sweep a huge number of major literary awards—a National Book Critics Circle award, a PEN/Faulkner, a Pulitzer, his second National Book Award. Wanting to absorb the fruits of his exile, I exiled myself and, starting with Patrimony—about his father dying, published in 1991, the year I was born—got to reading methodically forward.

I felt awed, in places, by these books’ ambition; impatient, in others, with their unbridled maximalism. Their willingness to meander, to dwell in dialogue, read like luxuries novelists aren’t afforded today. There’s a consistent emphasis on race and class in these books, on the challenges of coexisting in America, that surprised me. Reckoning with one’s roots yet remaining free to defy and define oneself outside of them. This comes through most explicitly in The Human Stain, where his critiques of an unexamined sanctimoniousness undergirding American propriety, Lewinsky-era Puritanism, and lazy campus moralizing read as disconcertingly contemporary. “Canceled older professor with a propensity toward sexual deviance” emerges as an archetype.

Come festival day, I’ve read maybe six more Roth books, not counting audio. I’m currently deep into American Pastoral (1997), Roth’s portrait of the Swede, his most morally upright protagonist, whose morality nonetheless fails him. Walking to CVS to get a new notebook, morning of, the audiobook of The Plot Against America in my ears, I wish I had more time. That I could stay exiled, “trained on the page” forever. But the sun is out; the world is thawing, spring is coming. I dress up nice and hit it.


Day One: Friday, March 17, 2023

3:33 P.M.

Touch down, after three trains from deep south Brooklyn, at Newark’s Penn Station. It’s a real scene out front. Hostile. The river right there. And the McCarter Highway underpass, where the Swede meets his estranged, homicidal teenage daughter Merry in American Pastoral, after she bombs a post office, murders a man, and disappears for some years, a block over. The bando she’s been squatting in, a few blocks up.

I’m rocking these slender dress shoes I decided on since I’m official press. Walking past the street dwellers out front the station, I want to tell them, This is not how I normally dress.

4 P.M.

The lobby of the Newark Public Library, the main branch, downtown, where Roth biked a mile and a half as a boy to borrow books, and where he donated a substantial sum after his death, is high-ceilinged. Marble staircases leading up either side. I’m greeted by the event director—she knows I’m coming. She leads me into the Centennial Room, where the first event is: “Reading Myself and Others.” About Roth’s reading influences. It’s fuller than expected. Ninety percent elderly folks. All white, besides the cameraman. It’s announced there’ll be a reception, after, in the “James Brown African American Room.”

I sit in a row reserved for press. There’s another reporter, a Harper’s correspondent, a woman about my age. Leather-bound notebook on her lap, pen at the ready. And on her other side, a long-haired male reporter for a local newspaper, reporting by ballpoint into a top-spiraled pocket notebook.

The thirty-one books Roth wrote over his fifty-one year career vary vastly in style and tone. This is what’s stressed during the event: this man had an insane writing ethic, yes. But he also read. Welcomed new influences. Won the National Book Award at twenty-seven, but didn’t read Crime and Punishment until thirty-five. Anna Karenina till thirty-seven. This man never stopped learning, never got too comfortable.

It’s refreshing to hear of this unabashed ambition, by this writer “writing to write among the greats,” being praised so unabashedly. There’s a lotta talk about “genius.” About “the mysterious origins of genius.” To Claudia Roth Pierpont, one of Roth’s biographers, genius is “listening.” “There are those who do and those who don’t. Roth listened with his whole face.

Someone at one point asks how he read. Like where, specifically. And at what time of day.

There’s something funny and sweet about this degree of curiosity and reverence. It’s contagious.

At one point, quoting Joshua Cohen, one of the speakers says Roth “would’ve written his work for no one. Roth wrote for the same reason that people masturbate.” This elicits raucous laughter from the audience. Roth made a certain type of perversion, for a certain type of person, okay to say aloud. I actually feel kinda off-put by this. But life back then, perhaps, wasn’t so pornographic at every turn, like it is now. Roth set a new standard of rules and for that he became, to a certain group, a type of god.

In Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s first book, the narrator works at a library. This is that same library, possibly the same room, I realize. Roth liked places like this: he valued the democratic aspect of reading, the civic availability of a library.

7:07 P.M.

There’s a chest-high counter of hors d’oeuvres in the center of the African American room, a sunlit open area with street-facing windows. Rows of stacks extending back. An open bar.

I start trying to be a reporter. I’ve got too many layers on. My backpack isn’t helping. I go stand by the table the Harper’s correspondent is at, and nestle up to a well-dressed older man, professorial, with a glint in his eye. He’s a professor from Germany. Out here for a talk he gave the other day. This thing has been going for some days already, apparently. He’s an Auerbach scholar and he tells me that his case, in the book he’s working on, is that Goodbye, Columbus was influenced by Auerbach. The guy came out here, went to Roth’s reading room, his original, personal library, preserved across the hall, and found the Auerbach book, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, that Roth read around that time; went so far as to find the passages Roth underlined to support his argument.

“Unreal,” I say.

His case is that Goodbye, Columbus is a debate between the ethics of the Old Testament and of Homer. Roth’s narrator has a decision he’s weighing. Either take the Homeric route, go with Brenda, a nice girl, his summer fling, and live the life she leads him on. Running around the track every morning. Living a nice suburban life. “Settling on the nymph island,” I say, which makes his eyes light up.

He looks me over and goes, “You want to sit? Put your backpack down. Get a wine.”

I put my pack down. Get a wine.

“So the other option,” he says, “is to follow the Old Testament. Renounce that life. Take the inner path. The higher calling. Follow God’s call to kill his son—renounce worldly comforts, challenge himself to commit to a life of writing. A path he knows he must take, but that no one else understands.”

“Kierkegaard,” I say.

“Kierkegaard,” he says, eyes ablaze.

“This is what I’m talking about,” I almost yell. “This is what the culture is lacking. Everyone with no inner calling. Only reacting to the sensory. The image idolatry of their phones. The endless scroll of Twitter. The pornography of Instagram—”

We’re full-on bros at this point, I’m all Asian-glowed and red-faced like, This is TOO relevant. Coming out of a months-long stint of sober hermitage, the booze has me charged and ranting. Locals working catering are coming by with trays of chicken satays, single-portion meatballs, Dixie cups of mac and cheese …

“So let me ask you this,” I say. “Is self-exile a prerequisite for the writing life?”

“Without question,” he says, not hesitating a second, almost indignant. Before adding: “I don’t speak to anyone before 1 P.M. every day.”

But so you’re unmarried and childless? I want to ask. Roth, I know, not only self-isolated late in his career, but never had kids. Only the professor beats me to it. “Well … I have the best of both worlds. I have my office, have complete stillness and silence. And then, when I’m finished, I have my family.”

“The best of both worlds,” I say, almost in tears at this point.

Day Two: Saturday, March 18, 2023 

10 A.M.

The first panel today is a big one: “Letting in the Repellent,” it’s called, after the phrase Roth apparently used to describe his artistic intentions behind the writing of Sabbath’s Theater, his 1995 Pulitzer Prize–winning misanthropic epic about a canceled and shamed puppet master grieving the death of his mistress. His most repellent novel, replete with graveyard masturbation, ephebophilic phone sex, and other depraved sex acts. The panel’s Ottessa Moshfegh, Gary Shteyngart, and Susan Choi.

For Moshfegh, to “let the repellent in” is to have “a hostility and aggressiveness not to the reader, but to the human race.” To, through fiction, “depict the depraved,” “confess wrong things.” This, to her, is a spiritual act: a gesture towards something profound. She “admires Roth’s retreat from society at age fifty.” When he finally said, I’m not gonna be a part of this anymore.

Shteyngart is in rare form, eliciting laughs at an intimidating rate. A story of meeting Roth in his early twenties, at a reading at the Russian Samovar, only to have their encounter interrupted by “some young girl” who caught Roth’s eye, concluding that—So he’s just the same as he is in his books!

 Moshfegh says that Roth is a comedian. She’s not insulted by his misogyny, she feels embarrassed for him. That he has to assert his frailty in that way.

12:22 P.M.

After the panel, I’m blasting a cig in the sun, in a big semicircular area with creative benches where some seats are arbitrarily, or maybe thoughtfully, elevated higher than others. It’s sunny, but there’s a frigid wind coming. I feel slightly affronted that both other major magazine correspondents have been given hotel rooms, food budgets. I zip up my parka, resigned to my outdoorness. I text my editor, asking if they’ll reimburse a hotel room: “It’s kinda wild gunning it all the way back and forth.”

I’ve gotta walk, I decide. I’ve gotta find the intersection Merry was staying at. To see, firsthand, why the Swede, American Pastoral’s protagonist, Roth’s idealized patriarch, failed at being a father: his daughter flees home to become a political terrorist, despite his best efforts.

I’ve got the cross streets jotted. Green and Columbia. Just off New Jersey Railroad Ave.

A few blocks down and over. Right there.

I start booking it down Broad. Try rolling a cig but the wind lifts my pinched tufts straight outta my numb, fingerless-gloved hands and onto the five-lane street. The Nike outlet store on Broad and Cedar has a huge line out front, is popping, despite the windchill. It’s gotta be a release of some new shoe.

Roth’s frequent sweeping distinctions, throughout his work, between Newark’s districts—the primarily Jewish area he grew up in, Weequahic, three miles south of here, versus the primarily poor and black region of downtown Newark, versus the primarily poor and Italian region of East Orange, to the north—seem not totally anachronistic,  hit with the contrasts I’m getting hit with, walking down Broad.

I turn left down Market, just shy of the 7-Eleven. Back toward the McCarter Highway. It’s for sure a little rugged out here, I wouldn’t want my teenage daughter involved in revolutionary politics, bunkered in a bando on this block. So high off myself, I’m in direct contact with the streets, that I walk a block the wrong way. Was supposed to turn after the Prudential Center. I pull up my phone, to check. Only to have my attention diverted again, by a text, saying, “Of course! We’ll reimburse you! Just keep your receipts!”

Oh shit, I say. It’s 12:48. Next event is at one. “I’ll go see the intersection in question later,” I tell myself. I don’t.

1 P.M.

The actor who reads “Defender of the Faith,” Roth’s first big story, published by The New Yorker in March 1959, the month he turned twenty-seven, is handsome, jacked, and a really good reader. It’s about a Jewish soldier going through basic training while trying to stick to the religious and dietary practices of his people. Got huge clapback, upon its release, from the Jewish community. For clowning the Jewish community.

I’m envious of having such a clear community, with such clear practices to clown.

2:22 P.M.

In the Whole Foods seating area down Broad a ways, railing sugar-free dark chocolate to stay awake. A man is bodying Patrimony sitting cross-legged out front CoolVines across the veranda. White facial hair, well-manicured mop top. Cardigan’s top button unbuttoned. Straight up slyly smiling to himself as he reads, performatively but unabashedly; and, given how unabashedly, heartwarmingly. I wonder how many times he’s read it.

Two teenage boys are posted at an outlet-side table, multiple laptops open, watching March Madness. Could sit here longer but gonna try to go get some sun. Gonna ask em, on my way out, if any upsets.

3 P.M.

Some dissent, finally: “What Gives You the Right?” The panel includes Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men. Discussing the ethics of a white man writing about a white-passing black man getting canceled for being a racist towards blacks (The Human Stain).

The discussion of The Human Stain runs its course after maybe ten minutes. The rest of the talk, and the Q and A, becomes about “sensitivity readers” and “cancel culture.” About “an author who got a big advance and then got slandered and shamed for writing about Mexicans but ended up not being Mexican?” I check out completely.

I think back to the German professor. This whole conversation about who is allowed to write is happening because no one has a god—a higher thing to follow. Without this, there is only envy and reactionary resentment.

I feel deeply sad all of a sudden.

In the Q and A, a Latino man comes up, and slightly belligerently goes, This whole talk, I’ve heard nothing about Newark. About East Orange. About the people who actually live here! He’s slightly hysterical, and because of this, incoherent. I kinda get what he’s saying. But his delivery is off. Too coarse for this setting. The moderator goes, okay! Sorta laughing. Moving on here! I wouldn’t know how to respond either. He’s shooed to the side.

4:44 P.M.

After the talk, I consider going up to and interviewing one of the panelists, a Northwestern professor. About my age, black. She mentioned having written a book about appropriation, only now she feels tired of speaking about appropriation.

I want to know what she thinks of Benjamin Taylor’s take, in his book on his friendship with Roth, on the central conundrum of The Human Stain. Quoting the novel, Taylor says that with Coleman Silk, its protagonist, Roth imagined “a black man who is not black, a Jew who is not Jewish, someone who’s slipped all the punches to become himself alone. Self-invention, the supreme American act: ‘He is repowered and free to be whatever he wants, free to pursue the hugest aim, the confidence right in his bones to be his particular I.’”

Only, she’s getting hounded by an audience member continuing the “sensitivity reader” Q and A hysteria. She seems to be backing away, plotting her escape back into the green room.

I totally get some of the posthumous clapback toward the universal adulation of Roth. The twenty-page footnote in Sabbath’s Theater, transcribing the phone-sex convo between the sixty-something Sabbath and the nineteen-year-old … I mean.

But then I’m forced to consider—Well, why are you so aroused? Why are you unable to stop reading?

Either way, I feel Roth’s ghost lurking over me, feel a little more libidinal, as I walk with the Harper’s correspondent through Military Park, to this burger spot she mentioned wanting to get a burger at.

It’s like soul-food artisanal, in a long and narrow train car–shaped building, smack in the middle of the park. Only open from three thirty to five thirty, and only some days. We’re the only nonblack customers. They’ve got an obscure Isaiah Rashad song playing. We sit at a table nearest the kitchen.

I start rambling to her. Maybe it’s all the Roth I’ve been reading. A desire for a slightly inappropriate intimacy. Here we are, two journalists, having a meal—an oxtail burger, some fancy artisanal dipping sauces, sweet potato tater tots—and becoming friends. Sitting across from her, I hear my tone shifting. I’m disclosing things I shouldn’t. I start trying to impress her. My self-exile ending. Everything new and like spring has sprung. It’s about to.

7 P.M.

Friendship, it turns out, is also the topic of the next panel—“Facts, Fictions, and Literary Friendships”—headed by four of Roth’s close friends.

It’s not just discipline and solitude that allowed him to write, it was moving through the world in an engaged way. Eliciting stories from others. Being solicitous of others. Friendship as a developed skill.

Lisa Halliday, who, in her book Asymmetry, wrote about her affair with Roth as a young assistant at his literary agency when he was in his later years, speaks about him with a glow, with so much love. How funny he was, all the way to the end. How much he motivated her to write, and their unique editorial relationship once the romantic phase of their relationship ended.

Another of the panelists was one of Roth’s historical advisors. When Roth wanted to learn something more about a particular topic that this friend was particularly versed in, he’d call him, and ask him to just talk. He’d record the conversation, then listen back to it. For all the critiques of Roth, unreadability is never one of them, and this unique research method, of listening, or orality, seems connected to it.

How his friends speak about him is a mode unto itself. It’s a viable literary mode, this type of thoughtful oral reflection. “It must’ve been around this time when …” “One day, we went here, did this …” It’s not easy to properly eulogize someone, and this seems like a beautiful, satisfying way to try to: have multiple friends, who knew the deceased from varying angles and at different times—different versions of him—each say their piece.

Something profound comes out right at the end. One of his oldest male friends says something about how Roth viewed women, that he objectified them, of course he did, we all objectify each other, Lisa retorts how she saw it, citing a point Susan Choi made earlier that day, that Roth’s preoccupation with lust and bodies stemmed from a bigger preoccupation with death and decay. They go back and forth a sec, till a third friend redirects things. Reminding me that, no matter how heartwarming friendship is, death is still death. In grief, someone always wants the last word.

9:45 P.M.

The Roth-inspired comedy show is the first time that festival attendees are made to leave the one-block radius surrounding the Performing Arts Center. And at night. Saturday night. It’s a scene outside of Foot Locker halfway down Broad, folks getting mildly rambunctious on the street. Cops idling on every block, lights on, ready for any action in case. This time I hang a right at the Prudential Center, on Market, and walk a block over to Hobby’s Delicatessen. There’s a cop car out front there, too.

The idea is, as David Remnick put it in his first New Yorker profile (2000), that Roth was “funny in the way a great Catskills comedian might be were that comedian also possessed of an immense linguistic gift.” The event is called “Stand-up and Challah!,” a Roth-inspired comedy show in a deli, since Roth was funny like a comedian, and also loved delis.

There are New Jersey Devils jerseys all up on the walls. An OPERATION SALAMI DROP sign above soda cooler, situated centrally on the floor—without a wall behind it. Long foldout-type tables, in rows, piled high with huge plates of cookies, coffee carafes, coffee cups and saucers. Middle-aged-to-elderly folks slamming cookies and coffee at 9 P.M.

One older lady sees us sitting there, comes over with a tray of all kinds of sweets, won’t take no for an answer. I slam a couple, to be polite, feeling my face inflammation spiking by the bite.

The Roth connection is a bit of a stretch: the orality of stand-up, immediate and reactive, is in such a different lane from literature. But there’s a locality aspect the comedians lean into. The obligatory Portnoy’s Complaint kidney masturbation joke. The longhaired male journalist bails after the opening set. I stick it out with the Harper’s correspondent, out of fidelity to the full-immersion Roth-a-palooza completionism, and since the walk over, which requires a walk back, seemed kinda sketch. Phil Hanley, the headliner, is the highlight, despite “never having read any Roth, or any books for that matter, since I’m severely dyslexic.”

“But I’ve heard good things.”

Nonetheless, he provides the most Rothian insight. Around the end of his set, he starts really killing when he starts going into the dynamics of his relationship. Shifting from one-liners to longer-form bits about his girlfriend, their sex life. The whole tenor of the room changes.

“See,” I say to the Harper’s correspondent, on the walk back to the Performing Arts Center. “Stories just hit different when they go into intimacy. Like I was saying earlier.”

Newark Nike outlet store. Photo by Jim Henderson, , CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Day Three: Sunday, March 19, 2023

3 A.M.

Too inspired to KO, I toss and turn till midnight, then get up and start reading. I’ve got forty to go in Pastoral. I’ve gotta see how it ends. Around 3 A.M., I walk to the 7-Eleven down Broad for more cigs. The cops are still out. I almost walk outta there with a sixteen-ounce coffee cup full of cleaning fluid—the guys hanging around the coffee area who try to sell me weed, don’t alert me to this. Neither does the cashier, till I ask for clarification as to its contents, mid-transaction. I settle for a large mint tea and a New Jersey priced pack of cigs (eleven dollars). The homeless dude out front, who tries to panhandle me, yells out “stay safe” as I parka up and make my way back to the hotel. I’m still rocking my slender literary dress shoes.

12:30 P.M.

There’s a North Face puffer-jacketed kid some strides ahead of me as I approach the library, where I go after the morning panel. I’ve yet to hit the audio tour of Roth’s reading room, I realize. The kid bounds up the steps, enters. Comes back out right as I’m pulling up. Leading me to think it’s closed. Only it’s not. Just to the public. To those not part of the Roth festival.

They’ve got the actual standing desk he wrote on. Letters he wrote to his parents when Portnoy’s dropped. Signed copies of books he sent to others, and that other writers sent him. A picture of a young strapping Roth from the camp he camp-counseled at as a youth. It’s like a type of posthumous surveillance, everything is recorded.

But it’s also endlessly inspiring. Conveying Roth’s athletic degree of spiritual commitment to his task. There’s the Eames chair he read in. The table he edited at. The type of pen he edited his own books with.

I take pictures of the standing desk, the dimensions and layout of the reading room, and text them to my cousin, a carpenter. “Bro let’s build this.”

“Easy enough,” my cousin texts back.

2:30 P.M.

When the lights come up at the Performing Arts Center’s Victoria Theater, Lizzie & Tisch Stage seating area—ninety minutes in—it takes me a sec to realize that the dramatic reading of The Plot Against America hasn’t ended. That it’s just the intermission. The first of two intermissions.

They’ve got actors, a whole bunch of them, reading the entire Plot Against America. Or, a slightly attenuated version. But all of the slightly attenuated version.

A live audiobook, in a theater. A theatrical audiobook.

At first I’m thrilled. There’s something so reverent about this. All of us gathered, on a Sunday, committing to attention and stillness. To the active imagination. A six-hour marathon literary feat we’re communally committed to.

Definitely shoulda eaten more at the Whole Foods, just had a juice to offset all the crap I ate from 7-Eleven at 3 A.M., that I neglected to include that I ate in my earlier retelling of that romp, out of embarrassment.

I’m on no sleep, no food, fueled only by two bags of complimentary popcorn, endless Zyns, and my fanaticism for literary greatness, and as the second round of readers begins, things get real ascetic. Spiritual. Everything about posture and breathing. Heightened focus. Attention. I’m spiritually fighting the ADHD of our age. This is what rebellion, true, lived, unspoken rebellion, against the decadence of Our Time looks like. Just us three committed journalists, sitting still, riding it out. Writing in our notebooks, with physical pens, listening to readers read off of physical paper.

Silently gesturing towards something profound.

Just listening. Listening with your whole face.

4:45 P.M.

This is insane, I think to myself as the lights come on for the second intermission. This is revolutionary. Nothing like this is supposed to happen in 2023. Nothing like this ever will.

A quarter, maybe a third of attendees bail during intermission. When we start again, it’s the guy from Monk reading. He’s doing a long phone dialogue scene. It’s all a slog suddenly. I get super sad, not knowing exactly why. Maybe it’s just that I need to eat, but … I can’t sit here any longer.

The whole weekend I’d been feeling like, Right. There’s another level or rigor out there. Another level of work. Had been viewing contemporary literary forms as lacking some higher standard of ambition and rigor. A higher standard of aesthetic value.

Minutes into the guy from Monk switching over to the redhead from Sex and the City’s reading, that all evaporates.

I realize that if art looks different now, it’s because things are different now. It moves faster because the world moves faster. The genie’s out. There’s no going back. Phones aren’t going anywhere. Restless, I survey the theater. There can’t be but a handful of folks under forty. Under fifty. An old man a couple of rows ahead has head back. He’s passed out. I hear muffled coughs, detect shuffling up on the balcony.

I turn to the Harper’s correspondent. Mutter, I’ve gotta get something to eat. She ignores me, but I nonetheless feel like I’ve betrayed her. I grab my pack and, rudely, slide past the longhaired male journalist and head for the exit.

5:55 P.M.

Back at the Whole Foods food court. I rail a clamshell of wings, a spicy tuna roll. Ravenous in a way that feels emotional. Existential.

The boys are still there, still sitting at the same table. Holding down that outlet.

There’s a book on the table. It wasn’t there before, or I hadn’t noticed it. I lean over to get a sight line on the spine. The Isis Papers.

I take a closer look at their setup. They’ve got two laptops, an iPad, and an Android phone, all plugged into a surge protector with a thick cord. Looks like a SEGA Dreamcast. Different-colored outlets. Army surplus backpack. Beats by Dre headphones. It only occurs to me then—how it took me so long baffles me—that they’re homeless. They’re not just charging their gadgets. I don’t know where they sleep at night, but in the daytime, this is their home.

Outside the Whole Foods double doors there’s a huge planter box. This’ll be my standing desk, I think, procuring my notebook from my pocket and writing this on it.

Or—I start to, before realizing it’s easier to type into my iPhone.


Sean Thor Conroe is a Japanese American writer. His debut novel is Fuccboi.