The Great American Novel (1973) Review: Stranger Still are Lies

Truth is stranger than fiction, but stranger still are lies.

-Word Smith


The Great American Novel (1973)
By Philip Roth

In my journey to get a BA in English, we were told to read the American Trilogy by Philip Roth (contemporary American author in the literary canon) and I, being swamped with half a dozen other esteemed novels, decided I didn’t need American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and I Married a Communist. Now, as part of my seemingly never ending juvenile rebelliousness, I avoid them by reading Portnoy’s Complaint and The Great American Novel.

What do I know about Philip Roth?

I know he “retired” from writing leaving most writers, critics and general joes alike to give a collective “P’huh?” I know I Married a Communist came under harsh scrutiny for his “portrayal” of his ex-wife — I believe he denies those claims. And I know he’s esteemed in the literary world.

So needless to say, reading Portnoy’s Complaint — however comical — was certainly a strange introduction to his actual work as it’s an entire novel about an antisemitic Jew who masturbates ad naseum.

What I mean to say by all this is, I didn’t understand what put Philip Roth on the same tier as Hemingway and Fitzgerald or Faulkner and Twain. And I certainly didn’t imagine that by writing The Great American Novel, he’d actually written the great American novel.

The Great American Novel begins with conceited ol’ Word Smith “Smitty,” a sports writer who has worked closely with presidents and Hemingway. From there, he describes the long forgotten Patriot League and the greats of American baseball: Ty Cobb, Luke Gofannon, and Gil Gamesh.

But after the greats, he goes on to describe the sequence of events that led to, not only the Rupert Mundys, but the entire Patriot League’s demise. He starts with the Rupert Mundys team, a ragtag (literally makeshift) group of players, each cartoonish incarnations of — wouldn’t you believe it — real baseball players. Who would’ve believed that the dwarf, Bob Yam, depicted in The Great American Novel was actually based upon Eddie Gaedel who, was not only a pinch-hitter in major league baseball, but indeed, had a fraction as his number: 18.

The novel follows the Mundys team dynamic and various misadventures including one particularly humorous game where the Mundys playoff against a psychiatric ward (unbeknownst to the team), so when they finally win, their cocky celebration shows how out of touch with reality they are and clearly where they belong.

But through all this humor, I continued to ask myself, “Why is Roth regarded as one of the great American writers?” I understand that baseball is “America’s national past time” and baseball teams can be tied to literary influence — as he does with Gil Gamesh — and the traveling team bears a resemblance to the Pequod’s journey across the sea. Even the idea of following a team without a home field and never scoring at home plate has some symbolic implications with American history but surely there was more to Roth than I was seeing.

And then it happened. About 34th of the way through, Roth exposes a conspiracy that has literally unwound my perception of reality.

Upon completion of the novel, I was left, jaw agape, wondering what was real. As with any high art — as I’m learning with Birdman and having explained to me by Infinite Jest — you don’t necessarily enjoy it or even understand it, but afterwards walk away wondering; talk about it speculatively.

As you may have surmised, this isn’t so much a review as it is a personal awakening. The thing with conspiracy theories is that they may be compelling, but if you believe in them you’re a kook… of course, the kooks tell you the powers that be told you to believe us kooks are kooks, so make your own decision.

It’s when I was reading The Great American Novel, I seriously considered finally reviewing Baseketball (The Great American Comedy) since they follow similar themes and even plot points… I mean, when the Mundys can’t win by talent, they start insulting players into submission (the birth of the “Psyche Out!”), but the ending is more reflective of:

As that thread unraveled, my mind jumped to social media, Facebook affectations, reality television, Ferguson (which I’m apologizing for now) and Fox News, the NSA. How, whoever controls the narrative of history controls our perception of events; I mean, you do that with your Facebooks, you control your narrative and it’s why something like the NSA is scary, they threaten the affectation you’ve made for yourself… or in the case of Bahari, they can manipulate your narrative into something else.

And it’s something we’re taught at a young age, but don’t read deeper into (I didn’t). They talk about historical bias, but it’s mainly who won and who lost and how that gives you two different sides; two stories. But it’s Roth who paints it so clearly to me (who modernized it a bit more than Orwell’s 1984) and makes it abundantly clear that lies, truth and conspiracy is the heart of America — a country without a home whose stories lack a source.

In more morbid news, Roth has opened my eyes to the possibility that the great American artists of the world, who have successfully held a mirror up to our society — because they “get it” — committed suicide because they didn’t want people to spin their narrative differently.

I’m recommending William Costigan for the Medal of Merit.


“All knowledge is self knowledge,” right?

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2 Comments on The Great American Novel (1973) Review: Stranger Still are Lies

  1. I think The Departed should be your next movie review, it kicks so much ass. But next time we chit we should chat about this revelation!

    • Haha, I think I mentioned in my Hugo review that I want to review The Departed if only because the first time I saw it, I didn’t bring my glasses and I was on a date in the backrow, so I thought Matt Damon and Leo were the same character (but we were watching his past and present)… when they phoned each other, I started freaking out.

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