I’m currently in the middle of senior seminar all about Philip Roth. That’s right: I’ll be reading a dozen books by Philip Roth over the course of the next semester. In an effort to gather my thoughts on these similar yet disparate texts, I’ll be reviewing them throughout the upcoming months. How far will I be able to get without turning into Philip Roth himself? Only time will tell!
Published in 1959, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories is exactly what the title promises: a collection including Philip Roth’s first novella Goodbye, Columbus as well as five short stories. Although quite different from one another, these stories are tied together through the common threads of Jewish American identity, class, growing up, memory, tradition, and community. These themes prevent the collection from feeling disconnected or disjointed, making for a seamless reading experience in which the texts build on one another. Rather than continue to talk about this collection generally, I’ve decided to discuss each story more specifically in an attempt to do them justice.
This novella is the first and longest part of the collection. Here Roth tells the story of Neil and Brenda, a college-age couple from different socioeconomic backgrounds in New Jersey during the 1950s. I was particularly interested in the way relationship dynamics are described, from conversations about family and the future to birth control. How things have changed since then!
“The Conversion of the Jews”
Focusing on a thirteen-year-old boy, this story questions religious authority and forces the reader to wonder why we insist on upholding the traditions that we do. While a bit bizarre (a common theme with Roth), the ending of this story made it all worth it.
“The Defender of the Faith”
This is my favorite story out of the collection, perhaps in part because it was the most controversial of the bunch when it was first published. Roth has been accused of being anti-semitic by negatively portraying Jewish soldiers as manipulative, selfish, and conniving; however, one could argue (as I do) that Roth is simply writing about flawed characters that happen to be Jewish rather than trying to make a statement about Judaism.
This story made me genuinely angry due to the overt sexism of the protagonist. At one point he describes the sagging, aged body of his wife and ultimately has an affair with the women who lives across the street, completely ignorant of the fact that his own aging body likely looks equally unpleasant, if not worse. While I understand the literary function of this sexism (Roth later exposes Epstein, forcing him to realize his own bodily flaws), it still is jarring and unsettling to read.
“You Can’t Tell A Man By the Song He Sings”
I always forget about this story because it seems like an outlier in this collection. Nevertheless, the high school setting and convict characters are clever, hilarious, and make for a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion.
“Eli, the Fanatic”
Arguably the strangest story in the collection, Roth somehow makes its bizarre elements combine into one cohesive narrative. While I was left with the most questions after reading this story, they were questions that I didn’t mind asking myself. “Eli, the Fanatic” forces you to consider human difference, community, law, and tradition from new perspectives, providing this collection with the ideal conclusion.
Overall, my first foray into Roth’s writing entertained, captivated, and frustrated me all at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing how these short stories compare to the novels we will be reading as this Philip Roth seminar progresses.
What are your thoughts on Goodbye, Columbus and Five Other Stories? Do you have a favorite novel by Philip Roth? Let me know in the comments section below!