Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The stars are indispensable: from I Married a Communist

Now transcribing passages from stuff I happen to be reading and posting them on this blog is not something I want to make a habit of - it would take up far too much of my time and then I probably wouldn’t be able to read anymore. But couldn’t resist this once. I’ve just finished Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist (1998) - finished re-reading it actually, I had done it no justice the first time around – and thought I’d put up the last couple of paragraphs, which I was very struck by.

I Married a Communist is the mid-section of what is widely described as Roth’s “America trilogy”. It came just after American Pastoral (1997) and before The Human Stain (2000), and it’s probably marginally the least powerful of the three works – though given the author’s quality in the past decade, that would still make it one of the best books of its year. Narrated by Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (though as Martin Amis suggested in a review, Zuckerman is more of an ipse ego - an author himself, exactly the same age as Roth), this is the story of Ira Ringold, an American Communist who is exposed and denounced during the years of the McCarthy Red-hunt in the early 1950s; a man who is undone as much by his own volcanic nature and the inconsistencies of his life as by his marriage to the hysterical Eve Frame, a former silent-movie star who “outs” him in a bestselling book.

What’s so interesting about the final passage, which I’m quoting here? Well, in his recent novels, Roth has shown a striking, apparently contradictory quality. First, in the most powerful, passionate prose you’ll find anywhere in contemporary literature, he gives us an array of unforgettable characters, examines what makes them what they are, shines the master novelist’s light on their strengths and fatal flaws; and then, at some point, he backs away from it all and becomes the detached observer, with a philosophy that might seem not all that dissimilar to “what the hell, it’s all just bunkum anyway”. It’s almost like he’s cutting himself away from his story. Nathan Zuckerman is the instrument for this approach; in American Pastoral he observes that life “is all about getting people wrong, and wrong, and then wrong again”. And here, at the end of a gut-wrenching story, after Zuckerman has finished a marathon conversation with his former English professor (and Ira’s brother) Murray, we get these closing lines, which I’m putting down here. Some of it contains references to elements in the story, the character names for instance, but you should get the gist even if you haven’t read the novel:

“On the night Murray left I recalled how, as a small child, I’d been told – as a
small child unable to sleep because his grandfather had died and he insisted on
understanding where the dead man had gone – that Grandpa had been turned into a star. My mother took me out of bed and down into the driveway beside the house
and together we looked straight up at the night sky while she explained that one
of those stars was my grandfather. Another was my grandmother, and so on. What
happens when people die, my mother explained, is that they go up to the sky and
live on forever as gleaming stars. I searched the sky and said “Is he that one?”
and she said yes, and we went back inside and I fell asleep.

That explanation made sense then and, of all things, it made sense again on the night when, wide awake from the stimulus of all that narrative engorgement, I lay out
of doors till dawn, thinking that Ira was dead, that Eve was dead, that all the
people with a role in Murray’s account of the Iron Man’s unmaking were now no
longer impaled on their moment but dead and free of the traps set for them by
their era. Neither the ideas of their era nor the expectations of our species
were determining destiny: hydrogen alone was determining destiny. There are no
longer mistakes for Eve or Ira to make. There is no betrayal. There is no
idealism. There are no falsehoods. There is neither conscience nor its absence.
There are no mothers and daughters, no fathers and stepfathers. There are no
actors. There is no class struggle. There is no discrimination or lynching or
Jim Crow, nor has there ever been. There is no injustice, nor is there justice.
There are no utopias. There are no shovels…There is just the furnace of Ira and
the furnace of Eve burning at twenty million degrees. There is the furnace of
novelist Katrina Van Tassel Grant, the furnace of Congressman Bryden Grant, the
furnace of taxidermist Horace Bixton, and of miner Tommy Minarek, and of flutist
Pamela Solomon, and of Estonian masseuse Helgi Parn, and of lab technician Doris
Ringold, and of Doris’s uncle-loving daughter, Lorraine. There is the furnace of
Karl Marx and of Joseph Stalin and of Leon Trotsky and of Paul Robeson and of
Johnny O’Day. There is the furnace of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. What you see from
this silent rostrum up on my mountain on a night as splendidly clear as that
night Murray left me for good – for the very best of loyal brothers, the ace of
English teachers, died in Phoenix two months later – is that universe into which
error does not obtrude. You see the inconceivable: the colossal spectacle of no
antagonism. You see with your own eyes the vast brain of time, a galaxy of fire
set by no human hand.

The stars are indispensable.”

1 comment:

  1. marryapersonality at gmail dot com7:50 AM, November 22, 2006

    This is my favourite passage in perhaps my favourite ever book. Your notes on it have made me appreciate it even more. Thanks.