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Philip Roth’s Postmodern American Romance

Critical Essays on Selected Works- Foreword by Derek Parker Royal


Jane Statlander

The central thesis of this book is that Philip Roth’s work is most accurately viewed as postmodernist American Historical Romance, rather than marginalized as Jewish-American. Four works are analyzed in relation to this thesis and to the specific idea that Roth’s contribution is entirely within mainstream American literature and culture. Emphasizing the importance and influence of Hebrew Scripture, the author demonstrates that, paradoxically, Roth’s Jewishness locates him squarely within the canon of (a Hebraic) America and its letters.


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Chapter Four. Location, Location, Location 55


Location, Location, Location Postmodernism, like modernism, is part of a Romantic zeitgeist. In language and literature, it is a rebellion against the inviolability of the word’s meaning regardless of its context. It stands in defiance of the Enlightenment’s logocentric imposition of the word’s unchanging meaning. Modernism posited a relational collaboration between signifiers and signifieds. Saussure described the sign, signifier and signified, as a subtle intermeshing of nuanced sound with a variety of possible denotations. Most importantly, these signs are defined by way of an arbitrarily-structured hierarchical placement and not, as the Enlightenment held, according to a natural organization. The absolute was replaced by the relative. Postmodernist linguistics, as Jacques Lacan theorized, eliminated the signified as well. Signifiers exist as surfaces, simulations, copies. It moved towards fragmented forms, discontinuity, instability, indeterminacy, the gaps between. The postmodernist romance works of Roth such as “The Day It Snowed,” Exit Ghost, and The Counterlife are poetic, dream-like collages of seemingly randomly juxtaposed places, figures and narrations in which the texts are self-referential, self-conscious, mannered, minimalist, and focused on the creative process itself. Many of Roth’s works are a critique and parody of the grand narrative, the meta-concept, meta-ideology. This is the basis of works like Portnoy’s Complaint and The Counterlife in which all value judgments are leveled and relative. There is nothing too consecrated to be scrutinized and deconstructed: Judaism, Jews, Israel. What remains is ambiguity, polemic, inter-referentiality, hoax and power plays. His works have a distinct, inherent sense, vis a vis communication, of...

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