My new Think Again is called “Collapsing Infrastructure? Who Knew?"
We have an expanded edition of Alter-reviews today. Here goes:
Library of America: New Releases:
Operation Shylock • Sabbath’s Theater
The Library of America is entering one of the great periods of contemporary American literature, offering those of us who still collect “brick and mortar” books a chance to honor (and perhaps even re-read) some of the best American writing anywhere, anytime. In that category I would unhesitatingly put Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, published in 1993, which I would argue, is Roth’s most under-rated book. It is not quite his best book. That would be The Counterlife. But something about the Holy Land inspires this man—remember the wonderful section in Portnoy upon the discovery of Jewish everything—well this is a far more complex and in many respects bitter book. It contains the most searing indictment of Israel I have ever read, put in the mouth of a top Mossad agent. It also contains ten or so beautiful pages about Barney Greengrass. It’s a complicated work, with almost as many questionable riffs as successful ones, a meditation on the meaning of identity as well as the purpose and passions of post-modern Judaism, Israel-diaspora relation and this being Philip Roth, sex, sex and more sex. It’s a great novel in every sense of the word, including its failings. Also included in the collection is Sabbath’s Theater, (1995) perhaps Roth’s dirtiest novel ever and among his best reviewed. (The publicity material reminds that of the leading literary critics of the English-speaking world, Harold Bloom and Frank Kermode, have proposed Sabbath’s Theater as the finest American novel of the last quarter century.) I did not love it, much as I admired its audacity. (Perhaps it was too close to home, say the people who know me.) Anyway, trust me on Shylock.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet • Humboldt’s Gift • The Dean’s December
Nobody considers Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975), and The Dean’s December (1982) to be Saul Bellow’s best books with the possible exception of me, sometimes. No question Augie March is more influentl. And though my recollection is a bit hazy, Herzog may be the ideal of the form. (I plan to teach it next semester and find out.) But these three books had Bellow in complete command of talents and writing with a kind of self-confidence to which only he had ever earned. I much prefer Humbolt and Dean’s December; the latter, together with More Die of Heartbreak, being Bellow’s most underated. But I’ve been writing about Sammler, for my history of liberaism, so here’s some of that.