am 10. März 1999
I've had the pleasure of reading ten of Roth's books, and plan to eventually read all of them, but I must admit to being quite disappointed with _Letting Go_, his first full-length novel.
_Letting Go_, unlike _Goodbye, Columbus_, and later novels, but like _When She Was Good_, is what can only be described as "self-consciously literary." Roth downplays the talents he showed in his first book to create a sweeping (too sweeping), long (too long, at 600+ pages, as far as I know his longest book), Jamesian (too Jamesian) novel. Gabe Wallach is a veteran from the Korean War, if memory serves, who in this disjointed narrative undergoes and failes a series of trials of conscience as he tries to help people less fortunate than him. In the end of the book, Gabe finally "goes the distance," with disastrous results, alienating all his friends... and for those who don't get the "point" of the novel, there's a letter from Gabe at the end which pretty much sums up the entire novel.
There are only two interesting characters here: Gabe's father, who has basically a bit part, and Martha, Gabe's erstwhile lover, who is really the backbone of the story. Roth has admitted that his novels are not "plot" novels but "character" novels, and that he specializes in putting his characters in impossible situations. In many of his books, the result is brilliance, but in _Letting Go_ most of the characters are flat, even the central character, Gabe, so it's hard to sympathize with them.
I'm led to believe that _Letting Go_ is supposed to be "funny" at points, presumably in the ridiculous climactic scene, but by that time the story had simply gotten on my nerves. The death of Martha's son, and the events leading up to and following it, are particularly bad.
The narrative here is disjointed at times, as mentioned earlier. The purpose of switching from first to third person is lost on me, as is the fact that the seven parts of the book have little continuity. Such devices can work sometimes, but they don't in _Letting Go_.
This novel isn't all bad. Yes, the characters are flat, but compared to many writers they're positively 3-D, and Roth had already showed an improvement in style compared to his first book. And I can't say I regret reading this book, even while I felt Roth was being "self-consiously literary" and not just doing his own thing, as he would start doing with _Portnoy's Complaint_. Overall, however, avoid this book unless you _must_ read everything Roth has written.