What the hell happened?

Alexander Star

  • I Married a Communist by Philip Roth
    Cape, 323 pp, £16.99, October 1998, ISBN 0 224 05258 6

Some time ago, Philip Roth remarked that his novels investigate ‘people in trouble’. Though much about his work has changed over the years, his fictional landscapes are still littered with human wreckage. Rage and lust, anxiety and melancholy are the dominant emotions, and all human impulses, even loyalty and affection, tend to career wildly out of control. Disorder is the norm; and self-understanding a bitter joke.

If Roth’s characters discover that ‘the direction of life is toward incoherence,’ their creator appears to believe that the direction of writing is towards coherence. The slovenliness of living is matched by the severity of thinking. Few writers have striven so hard to wrest intellectual clarity out of inner chaos, or to put the rhythms of argument – of manic argument and patient argument – to use. There’s a precise geometry to his characters’ turbulent lives: ‘for every thought a counter-thought, for every urge a counter-urge.’ Even in the midst of utter insanity, his narrators find that ‘clarification remained a vital need.’

In his most recent novels, Roth has assembled a gallery of mysterious troublemakers who are in considerable need of clarification. The puppeteer of Sabbath’s Theater declares: ‘I am disorder.’ He is full of rancid desire; his only source of ‘authority and amusement’ is his own ‘waywardness’. In American Pastoral, the protagonist’s daughter ‘is chaos itself’; protesting the Vietnam War, she visits ruin on her family’s suburban paradise with an act of murderous violence. And in I Married a Communist, Roth’s most recent novel, the three protagonists of the book’s venomous revenge drama are all at the mercy of their escalating and rather operatic emotions. Ira Ringold – husband, Stalinist and radio star – is driven by ‘five hundred things’, yet he never knows what they are or how they add up. His wife, an ageing actress, hysterically imposes ‘the magnitude of her misery’ on those around her. His stepdaughter provides a ‘first-class education in the pleasures of spite’.

In all of these roiling dramas, Roth typically dispenses with joy and delight: his characters are less familiar with ‘effortless tranquillity’ than with ‘effortless anxiety’. And yet there is a logic to all this ill-feeling. In novel after novel, his prose, like the relentless speech of his heroes and counter-heroes, is a rationalist’s struggle with his own irrationality, a moving tableau of ‘primal emotions and indecent language and orderly complex sentences’.

With its block letters and scarlet colouring, the cover of I Married a Communist suggests the lurid melodrama of an American paperback of the Fifties. A mood of hysteria and paranoia is set from the start, as if the book carried an endorsement from someone like J. Edgar Hoover. You do not expect to find many orderly complex sentences or emotional subtleties.

And yet I Married a Communist turns out to be another of Roth’s intricately arranged performances. As in American Pastoral, his familiar alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, presents himself as an observer rather than a participant. At the beginning of the novel, he is living alone in the Berkshire woods, where he enjoys a visit from his old high-school English teacher, Murray Ringold. As the 90-year-old Murray passes several martini-flavoured nights on Nathan’s porch, their conversation returns again and again to Murray’s long dead brother Ira, who was blacklisted and disgraced during the McCarthy era. Murray’s monologue and Nathan’s reminiscences combine to tell the story of Ira’s rise and fall: his flight from Newark to the zinc mines of western New Jersey; his conversion to Communism while serving in World War Two; his impersonation of the gangly Abraham Lincoln at union events and his subsequent employment on popular radio shows in New York City; his marriage to the fading Hollywood actress Eve Fine, and the dreadful combustion of that marriage in a series of mutual betrayals that lead to the exposure of Ira’s party membership and the publication of Eve’s tell-all memoir, entitled ‘I Married a Communist’ (a memoir that inevitably calls to mind Claire Bloom’s score-settling memoir of her marriage to Philip Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House).

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