On describing John Spigliano, a literature professor, Gabe Wallach, the protagonist of Letting Go, observes:
Spigliano is a member of that great horde of young anagramists and manure-spreaders who, finding a good deal more ambiguity about in letters than in their own ambiguous lives, each year walk through classroom doors and lay siege to the minds of the young, revealing to them Zoroaster in Sam Clemens and the hidden phallus in the lines of our most timid lady poets. Structure and form are two words that pass from his lips as often as they do from any corset manufacturerís on New Yorkís West Side.
One of the things Iíve always loved about Philip Roth is that heís always found life more ambiguous and writing-worthy than mere linguistic games. I suspect that is why in this realistic novel, a slice of American life in the Ď50s, his protagonist, a literature professor himself, and a lover of Henry James, pours so much scorn on the academics who only see the formal aspects of the novel while dismissing the content. Letting Go is not about cryptic wordplay or hidden messages that require quantum physics to explain them, itís not experimental in structure; it concerns the stuff of life, the moral dilemmas and ordinary but suffocating problems we all face every day of our lives in our relationships with others. Itís an old-fashioned novel in its most noble meaning. Itís also one of his bleakest novels.
Philip Roth, just twenty-nine when he wrote this first novel, an intimidating six-hundred-page tome, brings together a compendium of the possible domestic hells. Connecting the stories of several broken marriages together through the character of Gabe, Roth offers a brutally honest and mature look at love, marriage, sexuality, broken dreams, loneliness and unhappiness, peppered with subtle humour for the sake of the readerís sanity, lest all the agony that permeates the charactersí lives permanently affect him.
Gabe Wallach, an ex-G.I. still mourning the death of his mother and drifting apart from his ailing father, enrols in college where he becomes attached to the lives of Paul and Libby Herz, a Jew and a Catholic respectively, a miserable couple shunned by their parents for religious reasons. Gabe, a student of means, tries to help them out, but the sour, manic Herzes reject it. Not one to let others stop him from being a good person, Gabe manages, years later, to get Paul hired as a teacher in his college, setting the stage for further miseries in all their lives.
The novel is divided in seven sections and my favourite was ďPaul Loves Libby,Ē the chronicle of how Paul met Libby, their marriage and early years together before meeting Gabe. In it we discover a sensitive aspiring writer who tricks himself into marrying a girl out of guilt and derails his life from there on. Paulís despair working menial jobs to support a woman heís slowly falling out of love with is rendered meticulous attention and only surpassed in the novel by the portrayal of Libby, a sickly, needy, weepy woman with bad kidneys, which makes her prone to illnesses and inapt for working and so becomes a burden for Paul. Their lives are so wretched, that when she tells Gabe that she once had an abortion because they were too poor, he wonders if sheís not making stuff up:
I couldnít believe her. No well was so bottomless, no storm so unrelenting; even the worst rocks have a little greenery sticking to the bottom, not just bugs. I was convinced now that she was a liar and a nut.
As Gabe, a man of feeling, gets pulled to the emotionally draining marriage of the Herzes, he also meets Martha Reganhart, a divorcee and mother of two, a woman who left her wife-beating husband, a painter living in Mexico. Martha is also poor and overworked and struggling to raise two kids in a decent and happy home. Gabe moves in with her, getting him involved in a whole new slew of problems.
Rothís ear for dialogue, for capturing the different voices of his characters, is fully developed here. Characters talk and talk for pages, never sounding like anyone other than themselves. And looking at his best novels, I think his command of prose hardly needed improving; from the start of his career he had a natural talent to bend language to his will.
But the portrayal of the characters, so profoundly delineated, remains the main point of the novel. Roth is precise and incisive in the details he reveals about their lives; he describes them painstakingly, lingering on their weaknesses and imperfections, digging deep into their minds to extract all their beliefs, dreams, fantasies, hatreds and fears, until weíve seen them from all angles. Itís like reading about flesh and bone people. The ones that most impressed me were Libby and Martha, two contrasting personalities: one a hysterical, manic, depressive, bipolar woman; the other an inexhaustible source of energy devoted to her children and capable of juggling all the problems in her life without sinking into depression. In just a few strokes he manages to paint whole characters and invent credible pasts for them that explain their behaviour.
I think, ultimately, the novel is about goodness and the difficulty of being good. Gabe and Paul and Martha, in their own way, are all trying to be good. Paul is also a man of feeling, opposing Spiglianoís structuralism with a humanist view of literature. The irony is that Paul gradually loses his feelings throughout the novel, becoming trapped in an unhappy marriage. Gabe, on the other hand, shows more clearly the burden of feeling too much for others and desperately tries to extricate himself from all the lives he gets entangled with. I guess thatís what letting go means.
Domestic violence, abortion, adoption, poverty, unhappiness, loveless marriages, blackmail and even more appalling things are at the heart of this novel. Itís closer in spirit to the sober novels he was writing in the Ď90s than the extravagant period of Portnoyís Complaint and Zuckerman Unbound. And for me itís still one of the best novels of his career.