It's possible, although I can't confirm it, that Philip Roth passed away at the very moment I was reading the final pages of Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry, a novel supposedly based on her affair with Roth. Maybe it was Roth just checking out when the "indigenous American berserk" had intensified to the point at which language was finally defeated. But I like to think of it as a Rothian moment, collapsing fiction and real life into one.
First, a few personal opinions regarding Roth's work. Of the three great white male writers who, for readers like myself, define American experience in the mid-century–Roth, Saul Bellow and John Updike–I felt the least affinity with Roth and came to him last after my first pass through the best work of Updike then Bellow. However, of the late works of the three I paid serious attention only to Roth. I returned to his work when the vastly darker Sabbath’s Theater appeared in 1995. I would choose that novel as his best over American Pastoral his greatest because it touches upon the origin of Western literature: the singing the virile rage of Achilles. At that novel Roth perfectly balanced his two themes–sex and death, the great preoccupations of the Freudian era.
My personal narrative of Roth's work has Sabbath's Theater (1995), the story of a its lust-wrecked puppeteer, as the transition from the sex books (Portnoy's Complaint, which all its delight in recklessness) to the death books in the remarkable string of late novels that followed. Roth's keen awareness of last days came out in the interview with the imaginary Roth in the last pages of Aysmmetry. It's also present in the interview the actual Philip Roth gave to the New York Times in late 2017. Roth insisted that the interview was conducted by email, and it reads like a written exchange. Every response is carefully wrought, suggesting Roth missed writing more than he let on. He was frank about his age, writing "in just a matter of months I’ll depart old age to enter deep old age — easing ever deeper daily into the redoubtable Valley of the Shadow. Right now it is astonishing to find myself still here at the end of each day."
Roth meant so much to me as a young writer. Anyway, the big 50s-60s literary (male) personalities –Roth, Capote, Mailer, Bellow, Updike, (to a certain degree) Cheever — all gone. https://t.co/DRgfYetxf9
— Darinstrauss (@Darinstrauss) May 23, 2018
One could also add Tom Wolfe to the list of recently deceased American writers who lived in vanished literary culture, one that was dominated by white males, to be sure, but a culture that also had room for Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. There are no more Sontags or Didions, either. These writers grappled with the same themes a whole generation of Americans faced together: war, civil rights, Freud, the Holocaust, and the transition from urban to suburban life. What are the urgent themes of today? Trump, staring at iPhones too much, and a long list of other stupid things.
It's often been remarked that Roth never one a Nobel Prize or fathered a child, which is odd considering how movingly he wrote about fathers. Perhaps he could write so directly about death because he didn't have children himself, so he had no one to protect. The death of the childless writer feels like the death of a father, a literary achievement greater than a Nobel Prize.