(New York: And Then Press, 2016) 301 pp., $15
Robert Roth’s Book of Pieces touches thematically on many of the topics of liberation that radicals debated in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The pieces in the book use diverse forms to perceptively explore our society and politics, ranging from fiction, letters to the editor, essays, interviews and poems. The author is always questioning our deep cultural biases, whether writing on Israel-Palestine, success, normalcy, sexuality, feminism, or liberation. The writing consistently explores how our acculturation affects our behavior, finding that our conclusions about what constitutes social and cultural change can be used to competitively measure people, without regard to the fact that what frees one person can be harmful to another. One of the topics running through the book like a leitmotif is the way we view and treat the marginalized elderly.
The first piece in the book, “Leading Lady,” is beautifully evocative. The narrator’s mother Kato is in the hospital and wants to leave. The narrator describes the events as he experienced them; then, told from the perspective of the following day, Kato remembers the events that took place as a film in which she was the star. She keeps referring to the hospital emergency room as the “drug store.” As we learn later in the book, she had been treated with mind-numbing callousness at the hospital. Kato went in hearing music, but she left with periods of dementia mixed with brilliant insight and a wild perceptiveness. The author proposes in a subsequent piece “The Dumping of Old People into the ER” that the elderly should be provided with a separate emergency room like children and asthmatics, to mitigate the disorientation of being in a hospital.
“You’re old, they think you’re senile, then they feel they can wipe your mouth while you’re talking,” comments Kato (238). Kato is in home hospice care for a year, but is then thrown off the program. Deprived of the services she needs to live, she dies. This turn of events is quite extraordinary and says a lot about our society. It seems to me that it is as if our society has turned into a machine vacuuming up and killing the elderly when they start to cost more than society is willing to pay.
In another piece the narrator reflects on the phrase “dirty old man.” He notes that it stigmatizes sexuality in the old, and stillbirths feelings when internalized. “Rehab Romance” is a short story about his mother’s belief that her 102-year-old roommate Teresa is having an affair with an aide in her 30s. Kato objects to the romance because she thinks Teresa can do better. “That nurse is too rough and she is probably prowling the hallways looking for a doctor to marry” (293).
In the ‘60s the gay and feminist movements attempted to define sexuality and liberation through people’s feelings and needs. The personal was equated with the political. We have largely lost this analysis. “Gay marriage and gays and women in the military are breathtaking victories and simultaneously enormous defeats. They represent the difference between social equality (far from being won) and the possibilities of liberation. Gay (LGBTQ…) and women’s liberation challenged in deep and profound ways structures that perpetuate repression, oppression, militarism. These victories often reinforce those structures” (90). Roth writes that as people get married and involved in “Relationships” it’s hard to imagine anything resembling a sexually free world.
What is a sexually free world?
Perhaps one view of such a world can be found when the narrator describes meeting the woman/man of his sexual dreams. Robert Roth conveys the joy of the encounter vividly. The gender of the desired is a question but not a turn-off. This is part of his essay “My Penis,” which is reminiscent of second-wave feminist writings. It explores, with great courage and honesty, the author’s feelings about his sexuality and the formation of his gendered identity. This essay is important. I have often thought that our puritanical culture makes it difficult for us to discuss sexual and gender matters honestly. The lack of discussion and analysis leads to repression, posturing and confusion. Only honest analysis can allow us to understand the cultural forces creating our gender identity, and free us somewhat from internalized repression. The author also writes that our need to measure people by their professional success takes many forms. Roth notes that when he introduces writers at readings, there is an expectation that he will list their culturally sanctioned accomplishments, such as awards, university affiliations or where they have been published. It is telling that we need this kind of set-up to listen to another person’s work. The assumption is that only those who have been culturally sanctioned and recognized are worthy of our interest. This implies that those who are not given this stamp of approval should not be heard. This makes me wonder if we lack confidence in our own judgment to listen to people freshly, and then decide whether they said something that we connected with or conversely disturbed or bored us.
In a significant piece, Robert Roth writes about his close friend and collaborator Arnie Sachar. Arnie was a brilliant writer, editor and thinker. Yet he was never credentialed. Overweight, ill, shy, he was profoundly hurt by people’s judgments. The inevitable question from a new acquaintance of “What do you do?’ was painful for him. I know other people who similarly hate this question. It reduces individuals to a stereotype based on their employment. Arnie was a constant caller on some of Pacifica Radio’s WBAI’s call-in shows where he would brilliantly analyze our culture and politics. Yet the lack of recognition was in many ways soul-crushing for him. Arnie’s voice was unique and his ideas and analysis enriched those who listened.
Arnie Sachar and Robert Roth collaborated on a short story in the book titled “Leslie Klein’s Petition.” In it Leslie Klein makes a speech to a left caucus in support of a list of demands, which would have provided the character with more inclusion amongst left intellectuals. On one level satire, the piece is moving and funny. Klein’s demands will resonate with many: Leslie wants a phone call once a month from a prominent person, being allowed to appear three times a year on significant panels, and not being evaluated based on the number of articles published, amongst others. Roth convinces me that our work, culture and ideas will have broader scope and resonance if we include more voices.
Many years ago, when I was at college, a speaker from a prostitutes’ rights group was late in arriving. Jokes started flying about how she probably found a better paying job. It was quite ugly. The people making the jokes were unaware of how they were slandering her commitment to her cause and undercutting her humanity. I thought of that incident when I read Roth’s words “Coming into political consciousness I had imagined a radical movement similar to the beggars’ march in The Threepenny Opera. It would be a home, a place to gather for the despised, the grotesque, the disenfranchised, people in pain, outcasts. Together we would menace the society in our very being, in our very acceptance of each other’s humanity, in our essential beauty and defiance” (277f).
The vision that Robert Roth articulates resonates deeply. I heartily recommend this collection of writings for the beauty of the language, the honesty of the author in writing about difficult issues, and the vision it contains.
Reviewed by Barbara Conn