Which is not to say Unmasked isn’t engaging. We hear about the idyllic childhood in Newark, the college years, the disastrous first marriage, the psychoanalysis. We meet a former classmate or two, and are shown some wonderful, antic stills of the young Roth, who looks more alive in photographs than most people do in real life. There are funny stories about the notoriety that came with Portnoy — the cabbie he met actually named Portnoy, who found himself the butt of endless jokes after the book’s release and had a thing or two to say to that goddamned son-of-a-bitch who wrote it; the guy who yelled across a street one day, “Philip Roth, the enemy of the Jews!”
But, frustratingly, it all seems tailored primarily for an audience that hasn’t read his books. It’s possible he was given better prompts that he declined, of course — which can be the price of getting this kind of access. But the sense I had watching Unmasked was that it hadn’t occurred to the writers to think of challenging questions in the first place. Thus, we’re given Roth quoting Chekhov on the duty of the artist (“the proper presentation of the problem,” rather than political action), or Roth admitting that he has thought of suicide at times in his life, and musing that a significant number of good writers seem to have ended that way. These are not only softballs — they’re not even interesting softballs. What high-school sophomore couldn’t tell you that gifted writers have a tendency to kill themselves?
Jacqueline Susann famously quipped to Johnny Carson, “Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him,” and Roth has been getting mistaken for his characters ever since — even in Unmasked, he’s still protesting: “Whether it’s believable or not, most of the events in my books never happened.” That said, he does use real life as raw material, and we’re given some examples here: a trip to Tanglewood with Mia Farrow that turns up in The Human Stain, a real-life gravedigger (“I don’t like that for you, Mr. Roth. There’s no legroom”) who helped inspire Sabbath’s Theater. These things would be fine as filler, but in Unmasked they’re passed for substance. Or take the discussion of The Plot Against America. The book, in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in 1940, was read by many as an allegory for the Bush administration; Roth tells us this was not his aim in writing it, but “if it addressed emotions that people had at the moment, fine.” I am an extremely partial reader of Roth; I don’t believe we’ll see another writer of his stature in my lifetime. But my reaction to The Plot Against America was not “Is this or is this not an allegory for the Bush administration?” — but something more along the lines of: Wow, yeah. It certainly is a good thing FDR was in office, so that we didn’t wind up with any internment camps in this country. I don’t mean, of course, that we need Roth to write about Japanese Americans. But for alternative history, The Plot Against America was bizarrely myopic about actual history. Unmasked would have been a lot more interesting if its subject had been asked to look at his work with a critical eye, and not merely a nostalgic one.
Documentaries are probably a better fit for musicians or artists. A musician can make music, after all; an artist can show art. What can a writer do on camera, other than act like somebody acting like a writer? To convey the desired gravitas, the directors of Unmasked have included scenes of Roth standing at his desk, walking up to his Lonoff-like country house, or just sitting solemnly in a chair while classical music plays. There is even, heaven help us, footage of him walking along a beach amid whirring gulls. What does Roth himself make of all this posing? one wonders. “I was educated to believe,” he wrote in The Facts in 1988, “that the independent reality of the fiction is all there is of importance and that writers should remain in the shadows.” Maybe he’s changed his mind since then, or maybe he’s just resigned. For now, I count my blessings: At least nobody’s making him join Twitter.
– Emmy Chang is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Conn.