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3 Burnside Literature- A to Z



Patrimony Cover

ISBN13: 9780671758622
ISBN10: 0671758624
Condition: Standard
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lilah78, October 7, 2006 (view all comments by lilah78)
Reading the opening six-and-a-half-line sentence of Philip Roth?s Patrimony, you wouldn?t expect this memoir to be an exemplar for simplicity. But Roth, in this 230-page memoir of his father?s terminal bout with a tumor, makes comprehensible the most unsimplifiable, unexplainable of human experiences. Through a series of visual images and scenes propelled by four-word lines, he shows us the power of brevity. And showing.

Using pictures of his father?s brain, Roth illuminates the incomprehensibility of medical terminology. He, unlike Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, has no interest in making sense of every medical detail. Rather, as he recalls,
? now it was being compressed and displaced and destroyed because of ?a large mass predominately located within the region of the right cerebelloponstone angles and prepontine cisterns. There is extension of the mass into the right cavernous sinus with encasement of the carotid artery ?? I didn?t know where to find the cerebellopontine angles or preponstine cisterns, but reading in the radiologist?s report that the carotid artery was encased in the tumor was, for me, as good as reading his death sentence ?

While Roth elucidates the inaccessibility of medical language in its spoken and written form, he also highlights the intelligibility of the visual. In doing so, he paves the way for his own simple written word and encourages his readers to use their imaginations to visualize his father?s rare facial condition.

At the same time, in one of his book?s most beautiful feats, Roth uses the scan of his father?s brain to develop his character. As Roth explains, ?This was the tissue that had manufactured his set of endless worries and sustained for more than eight decades his stubborn self-discipline, the source of everything that had so frustrated me as his adolescent son, the thing that had ruled our fate back when he was all-powerful and determining our purpose ?? Here, in a seemingly effortless use of metonymy, Roth has rendered human that which is incomprehensible for both himself and his readers.

Likewise, the narrator illuminates not just the power of brevity and conviction with four little words, ?Do as I say.? The repetition of and hyperbole surrounding these words brings to life both his father?s stubbornness and the nature of their relationship. The command of compact prose ? written, spoken, or otherwise ? cannot be ignored when he recalls, ?I ? spoke four words to him, four words I?d never uttered to him before in my life. ?Do as I say? ? And they worked, those four words. I am fifty-five, he is almost eighty-seven, and the year is 1988. ?Do as I say,? I tell him ? and he does it. The end of one era, the dawn of another.?
Roth, in a conversation with his friend JoAnna, later emphasizes four other words: ?I don?t understand anything.? He tells us, ?I took a shower later, repeating those words ? the first thing in days I?d been able to concentrate on other than him ? repeating those words. Four words again, very, very basic stuff, but that night ? it sounded like all the wisdom in the world ? I didn?t understand anything.? It is as if Roth, himself a master of language, has suddenly come to grasp simplicity?s potency. The reader cannot miss this point either. And yet Roth employs repetition just enough to convey his point, not enough to annoy us.

Speaking of Roth?s conversation with JoAnna, this dialogue proves quite informative for my writing. By sharing their extended dialogue, one that spans seven pages, the narrator enables readers to see how he characterizes his relationship with his stubborn father to a more intimate audience. Though Roth is quick to point out his father?s stubbornness throughout the memoir, he brings that trait to life, divulging details that couldn?t come out elsewhere in the narrative. By switching from the anonymous audience ? his readers ? to a conversation with a close friend, Roth also switches the narrative?s pace. The incorporation of this storytelling technique precludes the reader from putting down the book and enables him or her to get inside Roth?s head, to empathize with the narrator, to partake in this discussion with JoAnna.

But this dialogue falters in its perfection. Roth offers very little commentary on the conversation. Rather, he allows the words he and JoAnna shared to tell the story. While such a technique might prove compelling in an interview, this talk, we can assume, was neither recorded nor documented. It could have just as easily appeared in one of the author?s fictional works. Consequently, Roth?s flawless account undermines the chat?s aura of authenticity. While, in the actual conversation, he may have shared his most intimate feelings with his friend, Roth loses his trustworthiness here. How do we know he hasn?t censored their conversation, or at least his side of it?

The problem with specificity also arises in Roth?s recollection of his father?s first hospital stay. There, he refers to his father?s roommate as Oriental and, more often, the Chinaman. While political correctness isn?t the writer?s obligation, precision is. Yet neither of the terms Roth uses to describe this man tell us anything about his character or appearance. They merely attest to Roth?s unusual willingness to resort to oversimplified, nondescript monikers.

Patrimony, in spite of these shortcomings, proved to be, for me, an inspiring model. With exquisite lines such as ?There was my patrimony, not the money, not the tefillin, not the shaving mug, but the shit,? and ?It was his Deuteronomy, the history of his Israel ? very few who wound up sitting across from him for any length of time didn?t get at least the abridged version of his sacred text,? Roth displays an outstanding mastery of metaphors. Yet his metaphors exceed mere metaphor; they also tell the reader something considerable, partly through hyperbole, about his persona, one we as readers still can't live without.
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Product Details

Roth, Philip
General Biography
Publication Date:

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

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