11 June 2012

We're Wrong

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes the same for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.

Philip Roth has been recommended to me by a few friends. They are very good friends, and some of them love reading books as much as I do, so it made sense for me to take their recommendation and go out and get a copy of American Pastoral, from which the above passage is taken. It's a book, though, that I have not finished, and likely will never finish, because no matter how hard I try I just cannot bring myself to read any more of it. This doesn't mean the novel is bad. It just means the novel isn't for me. And that I must really have bad taste. (I felt exactly the same way reading The Finkler Question, which happened to win the Man Booker Prize two years ago.) Like what the above paragraph says, people get other people wrong. Even people with the best of intentions. Those who thought I would like Roth were wrong about me, in the same way that I was wrong thinking that I would like the same things and books that they did. But it's okay. 

"I hope you don't give up on reading American writing," I just wrote to another friend who had recently expressed his intention to do just that. (Naturally, he was not one of those who had recommended Roth.) Little did I know that I would soon be giving up on an American writer—well, an American novel—leaving me with the sense, as usual, of not having known what I was in for.

With that said, I am rereading The Corrections, which is turning out to be so much funnier than when I read it (and loved it) for the first time. The difference a few years can make!


  1. "That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong."

    A simple sentence, but is so meaningful. People can reflect from this.

    "It's a book, though, that I have not finished, and likely will never finish, because no matter how hard I try I just cannot bring myself to read any more of it. This doesn't mean the novel is bad. It just means the novel isn't for me."

    I really feel you. It happens a lot to me. I have lots of books on my shelf, sitting silently for a long time. I'm trying though to read them one by one. Even though I know I'll be doing that for a long time, I'll give it a shot.

    Nice composition!

  2. But then perhaps you should have started with Goodbye, Columbus. His first -- a collection of shorts.

    I cannot recommend Roth enough. I hope you try to return to his writing sometime.

    And, I hope you have your book published soon. Was just thinking this morning how much I would like to read it.

  3. Hi H: I promise I'll give it another try. And you're right: perhaps a collection of shorts may be much easier to digest. Thank you for the recommendation!

    P.S.: I'd love to have my book published, but I can't even finish it. You'll be the first to know if I have something to show. Right now, though, there isn't. (Insert sad face 'smiley'.)