I was so looking forward to reading this book, but it was a big disappointment. I had never read anything by Philip Roth, but was curious about him, so when I came across My Life as a Man, I thought “Why not?”. The blurb was tempting, it seemed to be the kind of books I am into: a writer, a story-within-a-story and “meditations on the fatal impasse between a man and a woman”. It seemed tempting enough.
The book begins with two “Useful Fictions” about Nathan Zuckerman, which are then followed by “My True Story”, a memoir written by Peter Tarnopol, who is also the author of the two preceding stories. I usually like this type of multi-layered stories, but the style of writing left me cold. Despite my best efforts at liking it, I did not manage.
Firstly, while reading “Salad Days” and “Courting Disaster”, the two useful fictions, I would often lose track of the narrator’s chain of thoughts. I thought that it might have been done on purpose, and it probably was, as you later discover that their author is suffering from depression, although I do not think the word is ever used. However, those stories are entertaining and, I was also anticipating the second section of the book, waiting to see where these stories would lead me.
My expectations were deceived. The style remained more or less the same: long sentences and paragraphs, but I can deal with that and, at first, I was enjoying reading that section. Then, it seemed that the narrator kept repeating the same story over and over and over again, only focusing on different people: his wife, his partner (after his wife’s death) and his analyst. Yet, the only person he is talking about is himself. The narrative is narcissistic, like him, and this word is actually repeated so many times that you cannot fail to understand this. When I reached the last part of the novel, I had had more than enough reading about his failed marriage. Then I saw that it is entitled “free” and I sighed with relief (I am going to be free at last!). This part is actually my favourite of the book; maybe because I knew the end was close, but it seems fresher, with new elements added to the narrative, and the pace is faster.
I first thought I did not enjoy it because I was reading too slowly, only bit by bit. I then realised that I could not managed reading it for longer periods of time; I was just growing impatient and fidgety or getting sleepy!
One thing I must say is that Roth is succesful at conveying the internal turmoil of his narrator, whose marriage keeps haunting him long after his wife’s death, but, for me, it became boring and annoying. I have now learnt that the inspiration for this novel was Roth’s own unhappy marriage and that he admitted that the story was largely autobiographical. This does not make me like the novel any more; it only makes me feel pity for Roth.
I like some narrative aspects of My Life as a Man, such as its self-consciousness and how it makes you think about the writing process, but this was not enough to raise my interest. I have read a few reviews about it since finishing the book. Some seem to think it is his worse book, others really like it. I am not saying that I will never read another book by him again, but I will not rush to the bookstore to buy it.