Remembering Roth…and Wolff…and Fitzgerald
In the passing of this American literary giant and one of our personal favorites, especially in terms of blurring the lines of narrative and books and storytelling forms in general, we also revisit many of his works. One of the ways in which narrative, fiction, nonfiction, and books all come together in a short, humble, and oddly satisfying homage in which Roth envisions himself being given the first lines of his books—including Patrimony, the memoir of his father’s life—by a stranger in a cafeteria if our own memory serves. It was in buying a new edition of a long-lost copy of Portnoy’s Complaint that I first came across the essay, “Juice or Gravy?” published in the 25th Anniversary edition.
I’ve personally read more than a dozen of Roth’s books, and while not all of them were fiction and not all of them were conventional, they’re all narrative, they’re all books, they’re all remarkable with more than a few masterpieces dotting the list. But even after all these wonderful stories, I also still have a keen memory of this short essay that I haven’t looked at in many, many years.
The notion that entire books are encapsulated in their first sentences is not new or unique to Roth. It makes us think of other famous opening lines to great works, including Virginia Wolff’s distinctively feminist, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy herself flowers,” in which a female protagonist is set against implied expectations of what she can/can’t/should/shouldn’t do.
There’s also the Fitzgerald/Great Gatsby model of being gifted one of the most famous passages in all of literature as the end of your novel and being burdened with writing the novel that ends in this perfect ending. We struggle with endings as much as the next writer, but we have to say, we still prefer the Roth/Wolff model for the vast majority of our storytelling endeavors. In any case, the through-line is this idea that entire stories can be carried, implied, contained with a single emblematic sentence.