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'Here We Are': What Would Philip Roth Have Made Of All This?

"Imagine what Philip Roth would've made of this."

That's what I said to my husband last month (or was it two months ago?) during our extended family's first-ever Zoom Passover Seder. We were the virtual hosts and so we watched as, in groups or singly, family members materialized in their little Hollywood Squares cubes.

The little kids waved and held up plastic frogs and locusts, while some of the older folks squinted into their laptops and fiddled with the audio or pressed the wrong icon and vanished for a while altogether. Several times, the service was delayed by anxious phone calls from senior family members, requesting emergency tech support.

In mixed-marriage fashion, my husband and I took advantage of the situation and made ourselves Seder cups of gin and tonic instead of Manischewitz. Everyone genially agreed that the important thing about this shambling service was being together.

Had Roth lived long enough to witness Pandemic Passover on Zoom, he would have been merciless.

Roth died in 2018, leaving 31 books behind; like other Roth lovers, I will always want more. Benjamin Taylor's new memoir, Here We Are, temporarily eases the loss by giving us more of Roth's voice in conversation: brilliant, profane, and so very funny.

Taylor was one of Roth's closest friends during the last decades of his life. In fact, Roth dedicated his 2007 novel Exit Ghost to Taylor. Twenty years younger, gay and himself an accomplished memoirist and novelist, Taylor assumes the role of James Boswell to Roth's Samuel Johnson with ease — he's always aware, but only occasionally irritated, that Philip Roth is Philip Roth and he's not. At the outset of Here We Are, Taylor tells us:

Along with their conversations in Here We Are, Taylor summons up anecdotes and clear-eyed assessments of what made Roth tick. There's an appealing quality of randomness to this slim memoir that makes it feel like we're tagging along with the two friends on their constant walks, talks and dinners in the dive restaurants Roth preferred on the Upper West Side, where anything could come up, sometimes even big revelations.

Taylor says that after Roth announced his retirement from writing in 2012 "[h]e stopped making art," but he still wrote, producing a manuscript of over 1,000 pages, whose purpose was to air grudge after grudge. Taylor comments that "The underside of [Roth's] greatness swarmed with grievances time had not assuaged."

Taylor also recounts some of Roth's health struggles: Among other things, he suffered from back and heart problems. Taylor recalls one particular trip to the hospital with Roth where they jumped into a cab: the "aggressively flatulent" driver had Rush Limbaugh on at top volume. Roth, in pain, turned to Taylor and asked, "Are we to be spared nothing?"

There's that voice. Dry, droll, delighting in the Human Comedy, and resigned to sometimes being the butt of its ongoing jokes. The greatest pleasure of Here We Are is hearing Roth's voice again new, especially when he's talking about his writing. At one point in their conversations, Roth says to Taylor that what he cares about in his work is:

About his development as a novelist from his 1959 debut in Goodbye, Columbus to Portnoy's Complaint, which was published in 1969, Roth confesses:

That last line stopped me cold and made me sorely miss the presence of Philip Roth in our world. What an epic Roth might have written, flinging Zoom Seders, sheltering in place, Lysol and toilet paper against our present world-historical obscenities.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.