Monday, May 22, 2006

A Rothful God

The New Yorker this week delivers unto us a little Roth. No, not that Roth, the other one, Henry Roth, the one who died in 1995 at the age of 89. The one who, according to the note at the end of the story ("God the Novelist"), left behind a 2,000-page unedited manuscript from which this story was "adapted".

The story begins:
The Home Relief investigator called on Thursday: a dark-complexioned, middle-aged woman, Jewish, wearing glasses. As soon as she entered my room, having climbed three flights of stairs to get there, she made for a chair and, panting, ensconced herself.
The narrator is an aspiring writer of short stories, currently on welfare and sharing a wretched room with a colony of bedbugs. He tells the Home Relief investigator that he needs a better place to write in, and she promises to help. The rest of the story meanders from one comic scene to the next, without ever approaching any sort of resolution. He chats with an Irish friend about his problem. He goes to see his agent, Virginia, and shows her a story he has written for The New Yorker:
But Virginia was dissatisfied. I internalized too much. My feelings were like a lead coffin, she said.

“Well, how are you going to tell what the character feels if you’re not inside him,” I demurred.

“Oh, no” was her riposte. “God the Novelist knows, the narrator knows.”
At this point, the pov switches from first-person to third, with the narrator referring to himself as God the Novelist:
So, today, God the Novelist thought He’d better go over to the Home Relief Bureau and get His new identification card, which His investigator had failed to give Him.
God the Novelist spends the rest of the story trying, unsuccessfully, to find the Home Relief office, at which he can get a new identification card, and, we hope, a room better suited to a supreme being.

No summary will do the story justice; it's too funny, line-by-line, and filled with jokes for writers. It can still be read for craft, though. The story is very dialogue heavy--it's little more than a series of conversations--but Roth is always careful to give us interesting things to look at. He mixes little baubles of action into all the talk--from "herding" tobacco behind a character's upper lip to spreading jelly on toast to almost being run down by a car--simply to modulate the experience (i.e., to keep the story from being all dialogue) and to put all the talk in a physical context. It's a small but important thing, too often ignored.