I Married a Communistis one of Philip Roth’s “Zuckerman” novels. It is the seventh in the series. Over the last few years I have been working through this sequence and reading the books in order. I love these works.
I have immensely enjoyed everything that I have ever read by Roth. His writing contains multiple insights into people and the world. His wit, as well as his characters, are often hilarious. When he is tragic, it is devastatingly effective. The tendency is moving toward tragedy, and less lighthearted playfulness in the Zuckerman Series, as the books progress and the characters age. His writing style is easy to digest yet not simplistic. His structured plots are artfully interlaced with complex and thought provoking themes.
Though a “Zuckerman” Book, Nathan Zuckerman is not the main character in I Married a Communist. Instead, he is more of a bystander influenced by the main players, as well as an interpreter of their actions. The protagonist here is Ira Ringold, an unsophisticated Newark tough, who goes off to fight World War II, and who becomes seduced with communist ideology. When Ira returns from the war, he eventually finds success as a radio actor and marries into upper crust American society. Ira is not a menace to America, he is no spy or saboteur, just an very overbearing and naive ideologue. Ira is eventually brought down less by McCarthyism, then by a terribly dysfunctional relationship with his wife and stepdaughter.
I Married a Communist follows the brilliant American Pastoral in the series. American Pastoral was superb. It was one of the best twentieth century novels that I have read. I Married a Communist is not quite up to that level; it does not pack the same emotional punch and is not as esthetically satisfying. Nonetheless, in my opinion this is still a really good, perhaps great novel. American Pastoral is just a tough act to follow.
The Zuckerman books are full of interesting themes. I will mention that some readers have found that these works become repetitive. Roth has come under criticism for this perceived redundancy. See the below link to a New York Times piece about Carmen Callil’s opinion on this and other issues. Callil contends, among several complaints, that Roth repeats himself. While in a way, Callil has a point, I ultimately do not agree with the conclusion.
Roth does tend to explore similar or even the same themes over and over again in the course of many books. In my opinion, in Roth’s case, this is not a flaw. Like the composer of a complex piece of classical music, who starts with a musical theme and repeats it in a variety of forms over the course of the entire work, Roth imaginatively and expertly looks at several aspects of the human condition from multitude of angles and points of view. He accomplishes this over a series of books. Like the composer who restates a chosen theme using different keys, emphasis. tempo, etc., Roth takes an idea, and applies it to various people and situations that may be too diverse to fit into one novel.
One of Roth’s most important reoccurring motifs is the concept of human identity, or the way in which a person and others thinks about “self”. Roth’s thinking about what it means for a person to have identity owes much, to both Shakespeare, who is often referenced directly and indirectly by Roth’s characters, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, particularly the Great Gatsbyconception of the American propensity to reinvent and shift identities.
How precisely does Roth explore identity? In I Married a Communist, the various characters try to establish their identities, slip in and out of identities, hide their identities, fake identities, and finally have invalid identities forced upon them by others. The later sub - theme; that of having a false identity forced upon you, fits in well with the era described here. Most of the narrative takes place of post World War II America, when a multitude of non - communists were falsely accused and identified as being communists. The way that Roth weaves together this complex lattice of character and identity, as the various personalities evolve and interact, is a wonder.
For instance, I Married a Communistcharacter of Eve Frame is born and raised Jewish. As she becomes accepted in the White Anglo Protestant world of mid twentieth century upper class America, she hides, perhaps even from herself, her Jewish origins, and actually develops real feelings of anti – Semitism. Later she is indifferent to the fact that her husband is a dyed in the wool communist (not someone who is falsely accused, but the real thing). Later still, she changes her “self” again and poses as a right wing, flag waving, anti –communist patriot, but privately admits that this position is just an act. Eve’s shifting persona interacts with a variety of others, who also share the all too human trait of having shifting, false, and misinterpreted selves.
My advice for anyone wishing to delve into the Zuckerman books is not to start I Married a Communist since it is late in the series. As a “Completest”, I would start at the beginning with Ghost Writer. The first four novels can actually be found in one volume as Zuckerman Bound. If one definitely does not want to read all the books, American Pastoral can be read standalone (Nathan Zuckerman is not even the main character in this one either), and is well worth it.