In truth, I have let myself down too often, book-wise: When you read a lot for work, collapsing with a good book after dinner can feel like something less than a holiday. After a long day at the computer, I yearn to do something else - make a pie crust, watch a screwball comedy, take a walk. Even ironing has a certain appeal.
So my first thought, when I picked up Philip Roth's second novel, "Letting Go", for the second time in maybe thirty years, was, How many pages? 661. A daunting number; how would I fit this novel into an already tumultuous year, teaching for the first time, living not in my house, not with my husband, not near the dog, to say nothing of the horse?
And yet I read at least ten pages every night, even when I'm tired and the voice of reason whispers "occasional insomnia," because I'm dying to know what happens next to Gabe and Paul and Libby and Martha and the rest.
If you've been paying attention, this is where you say to yourself, But she already read the novel once before, so she already knows what happens. Yes and no; that's the delicious part of re-reading. There have been lots of words on pages between the first read and the second, so I don't necessarily recall where the story goes, and then I do, a millisecond before it gets there. I'm reading it in tandem with my younger self, which is an unnerving kind of fun. Last time around, the characters were older than I was, and far more sophisticated, more complicated, interesting in a way I never imagined my friends and I would be. This time, I see them differently.
What fights they have; how inept they are at expressing themselves. I wonder - I imagine he must have - whether Woody Allen read "Letting Go" before he wrote the subtitle scene in "Annie Hall," where Woody Allen's and Diane Keaton's characters serve up their snappy patter and the subtitles tell us what they really mean. That's barely a Cliff's Notes version of what goes on in "Letting Go": conversation, in Roth's world, includes what one character intends to say, what he actually says, and how the person he's talking to interprets it - as well as what that person says in reply, which involves what she intends, what she says, and how he interprets it. There's the conversation each of them imagined before it took place, and the conversation they'd like to have if they could extricate themselves from the train wreck they're in, all of this layered into exchanges so simple, and so simply misguided, that they made the reader wince in painful recognition.
Just past halfway in, I'm amazed that any of us can say "Pass the butter" and manage to make ourselves understood. But not depressed, oddly enough. The story is such a familiar, valiant mess, or better, a sprawling but disciplined rendering of a mess; 661 pages, and I am starting to regret that it will end. A novelist friend says that when you write the last page of a novel you leave that world forever - you can and will visit it again, for rewrites, but it will never be the same as when you lived in it, and some version of that is true for a reader as well. I would like to be mired for as long as possible, and I imagine that I might cut back to fewer pages a night just to prolong the read.