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The Revenge of the Vrai

Zuckerman Unbound

by Philip Roth
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 225 pp., $10.95

Literature got me into this and literature is gonna have to get me out.”

—Peter Tarnopol, in My Life as a Man

Nathan Zuckerman, thrice-married son of a foot doctor, is not just a novelist who likes to quote Flaubert and invoke the powers of Art. No, as Philip Roth intimates in the title of his new novel, Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan has a great mythological predecessor, Prometheus, whose own story was told by Aeschylus in a similarly titled tale. Zuckerman, of course, does nothing so dramatic as stealing fire from Zeus for the benefit of human civilization. All he does is write a book.

In fact, as we know from Roth’s own previous book, The Ghost Writer, that is all Nathan Zuckerman has ever wanted to do. The narrative is Nathan’s tale of his youthful journey to receive the Word at the feet of E.I. Lonoff—distinguished author, consummate literary craftsman. “I had come,” he explains, “to submit myself for candidacy as nothing less than E.I. Lonoff’s spiritual son”—being on the outs with his own father for a rather indiscreet piece of fiction about family life.

But as Zuckerman Unbound tells us, in 1969, thirteen years after that meeting, Nathan writes a book that might have shocked his spiritual father as much as his real one. That book is Carnovsky, a book very like Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint. It is bursting with a Jewish son’s sexual anxiety; it is a manic masturbatory outburst. Carnovsky, it seems, is like some Promethean gift of literary fire, brought down by Zuckerman from the Olympian heights of literature, not to civilize man, but to free him and the author as well.

The carnal heat is hardly contained between the book’s pasteboard covers. Carnovsky stirs the public into a frenzy. It is singlehandedly responsible for the boost in sales of black silk lingerie; it is debated in rabbinical sermons and canasta groups. And if “Tzena, Tzena,” the Israeli folksong, might, according to Nathan’s father, “win more hearts to the Jewish cause than anything before in the history of the world,” this piece of popular literary material obviously threatens to do just the opposite.

So Nathan, after laboring for years at the altar of Art, has become rich and famous—though not quite in the way he might have imagined. Everywhere he goes he is taken for Carnovsky. He wants to buy a bed in Bloomingdale’s, and word gets around that Carnovsky is trying out mattresses. The Con Ed meter reader comments on his sex life. “Hey, careful, Carnovsky,” come shouts in the street, “they arrest people for that!”

Nathan is accosted by strangers, most notably Alvin Pepler, a landsman from Newark who recognizes the author of Carnovsky in a delicatessan, eats half his sandwich, and imposes on the author his own sad story. Nathan arranges for an unlisted phone number, an answering service, and still gets calls threatening to kidnap his mother—now famous as the crazed matriarch of Carnovsky. He has to coach her to answer questions from the prying press. He breaks up with his angelic wife. He enjoys a single night with the glamorous actress, Caesara O’Shea, before she runs off for an affair with Fidel Castro. Nathan has made so much money he has to see an investment broker, though he is more comfortable carrying his money around in his shoe—a place his chiropodist father would probably have disapproved of.

If Carnovsky is a long complaint about a Jewish childhood, Zuckerman Unbound is a just slightly less frantic whine about the burdens of fame and fortune for the book’s author. Zuckerman’s punishment for his Promethean gift to man has been arranged by more poetically inspired Fates than those who arranged to have the mythical firestealer’s liver chewed at by an eagle while he was chained to a stone. Zuckerman is chained and bound—by his readers—to the book itself.

The story is told in a voice that seems perfectly suited to its subject’s mixture of the tragic, pathetic, banal, and fantastic. It is almost spoken, not written, with abrupt sentences and bare descriptions. The first-person voice of The Ghost Writer was weighted with a mature irony, combining the comforting stillness of falling Berkshire snow with the pulsing restless anxiety of the young Zuckerman’s imagination. The present book’s irony, inferred more than heard, creates more puzzles and provides fewer charms.

In fact, after The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound seems impoverished in characters and indulgent in its narrative, as if Roth has lost his way, as he did with his mammoth The Great American Novel, or as he seemed to again in long, forced passages in The Professor of Desire. Reading Zuckerman Unbound as a piece of fiction about a fame-tortured fiction writer makes it seem only casually interesting, limited in ambition and achievement, lacking in the rich and the rare or the raucous and the wild. What, after all, is one to make of the sketchy Pepler, or the sweet, sighing mother, or the actress’s billboard beauty, or that narcissistic cipher, Zuckerman himself? The reader is hit over the head with some things, barely shown some others.

But the book is disturbing and challenging. It asks that something be made of it, that it be understood, treated with more care than Nathan’s Carnovsky is by his reading public. Zuckerman Unbound is almost the story of a book being misread—by its author as well as by its readers—chaotically mixing the real with the imagined.

As a novelist, of course, Nathan himself is always making his art out of the “vrai,” as he calls the “real” (after Flaubert). His fictional story “Higher Education,” outlined in The Ghost Writer, is even referred to in Zuckerman Unbound as a source of factual details on Zuckerman’s early life. Nathan depends on the vrai, taking notes on his daily encounters, filling lines of his black composition book with details of characters far better realized than his own.

But when people call him “Carnovsky” in the street, he is quite clear about their error (echoing Roth’s similar words on his experience with Portnoy): “They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book.” The book breeds a “living fiction” all around him, “his dignity handed over to Oberon and Puck.” His readers become novelists themselves, fictionalizing Nathan while treating his book as Truth. So while Nathan casts his spell on the vrai, that reality casts its “counter-spell”—The Vrai’s Revenge he calls it. “He who’s made fantasy of others now fantasy of others.”

Alvin Pepler, for example, is himself a variation on that theme; he was a quiz contestant winner, a brilliant absorber of detail and fact, forced to lose on the fixed TV show, “Smart Money,” because the producers were not interested in Truth but in Art. “Art,” they tell him, “is controlled, art is managed, art is always rigged.” Like Nathan’s, Pepler’s life was turned into Art; now he wants Nathan to help him with a book so he can tell the Truth. “People would read it,” Pepler says, “they would believe it.” As for Zuckerman’s own book, Pepler believes, like the other fans, that the book is true, but strange truth indeed—stolen, he accuses, from Pepler’s past, not Zuckerman’s.

So as fiction is taken for truth, and life is turned into art, distinctions begin to dissolve. The vrai is judged as Art: “Unconvincing,” Nathan says to a “stage villain” voice that threatens his mother’s life, “Bad art.” The world is filled with actors and authors. Carnovsky was, in the truly vrai, a yiddish actor. Intent on his own roles Nathan buys six custom-made suits; the cloth is selected as if out of the “rare-book room at the Bodleian.” A letter arrives, asking to do a documentary on Zuckerman’s “offstage life.” Caesara O’Shea, the beautiful actress, is reading Kierkegaard’s The Crisis in the Life of an Actress” She asks Nathan: “What is the crisis in the life of a writer? What obstacles must he overcome in his relation to the public?” Actors and writers both transform the real, leaving its boundaries ambiguous.

The real, then, becomes an “unwritten world,” waiting for its aesthetic order, challenging the author’s imagination. Everything is writing. “Be yourself,” a friend tells him. “And who’s that?” he asks. “You’ll come up with something,” is the suggestive answer. At his father’s funeral, he looks around at characters and faces. “If only I were still writing Carnovsky,” the obsessed author thinks, leaving grief for lesser mortals.

The queer thing is, of course, that in Zuckerman Unbound the “unwritten world” is thoroughly written; the vrai is thoroughly fictional. Many characters simply represent fictional types, without the “rounded” quality of realistic creation. As a foil to a Carnovsky-ridden imagination, Laura, Zuckerman’s wife, is the perfectly charitable woman; a priest becomes her next companion. Zuckerman’s mother is also an inversion of a Carnovsky creation. Criticize Nathan’s failed marriages? “Oh, my darling, not me, never, never, never in a million years.” And calculated images dominate the text. A handkerchief raised to the lips calls attention to itself with all the subtlety Flaubert might have mustered. In fact, Zuckerman himself appeared as the fictional creation of author Peter Tarnopol in My Life as a Man, with a variety of invented lives. Tarnopol could speak of “Zuckermanizing myself,” transforming his life into literature. Zuckerman Unbound is almost sheer artifice.

It does, though, challenge the reader to react as if it were a “Zuckermanized” version of truth—truth, that is, about some writer who had just written a carnal best seller, and appeared in gossip columns alongside such names as William Styron, Tony Randall, and Leonard Bernstein. Dear reader, says this book, isn’t this just like the “Roth” fellow and his book Portnoy’s Complaint—isn’t it just like his fame and fortune and problems? Alvin Pepler accused Zuckerman of making him the model for Carnovsky—but he may instead be a Rothian figure, a model for the similarly initialed Alex Portnoy; both are obsessed with the conspiracies of their past, both have had dealings with the quiz scandals, both, Pepler makes clear, have onanistic inclinations. “Roth” seems to be enacting his own narcissistic dream, daring his fiction to be taken as truth, while asking through Zuckerman—“are you reading me?”

Coy play with truth and fiction is one of our literary tradition’s favorite tropes, used from Don Quixote to Pale Fire. But what is Roth up to here? Where is the power of literature located? Has he reduced it to self-centered gamesmanship? Why does this book seem at once so fascinating and so disturbing?

Zuckerman is almost a latter-day Emma Bovary, his life disrupted not by reading about desire, but by desiring to write. He is a victim, bound by fictive yearnings. He could ask, “Did fiction do this to me?” just as David Kepesh did after he turned into a giant breast in Roth’s Kafkaesque fable. Does Zuckerman, only slightly less constricted by his desires, know how bound he is? How is Zuckerman unbound?

Roth has presented a similar situation in earlier novels; characters are caught in a confusion of the real and the imaginary, a problem caused by “literature” in its broadest sense. Lucy Nelson of When She Was Good—one of Roth’s most underrated accomplishments—is unable to distinguish between her fictionalizing desires and the real world. David Kepesh in The Breast is completely in the thralls of a fiction. Portnoy has a mythologized past that surfaces in his every gesture. Tarnopol can’t tell which is closer to the plausible, his life or his fiction.

In the midst of their confusion, the characters are also trapped by some overpowering destiny against which they struggle—but every twist and turn just gets them in deeper. In Goodbye Columbus, the “colored boy” coming to the library to look at art books will probably have an easier time freeing himself from his past than will the young aesthete and lover, with his ambitious desires to move away from lower-middle-class Jewish life. Lucy consistently repeats her family’s history even while she fights most hard against it. Tarnopol writhes in his attempts to free himself from his wife’s domination, while acquiescing to it again and again, even in his fiction. The desire to be freed becomes its own enslavement. The prisoner is always lost, always turning back to early family scenes. No matter which way he turns he is face to face with his past and his fate; he is nearly always looking in the mirror, alone. “Oh, so alone!” Portnoy calls out. “Nothing but self! Locked up in me!” The labyrinths of enslavement are narcissistic variations on Kafka’s enclosed worlds.

The way Nathan Zuckerman confronts this problem, in both The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, is through literature itself; despite the confusion literature creates, in “turning sentences around,” as E.I. Lonoff does in The Ghost Writer, other tumblers may turn as well.

So when the young Nathan Zuckerman goes to seek a spiritual father in Lonoff, he is acting against the constraints of his nonliterary past. “My father,” he says, “was a foot doctor, not an artist.” Nathan writes a story, “Higher Education,” concerned with the overcoming of past burdens, using frenzied immigrant ambitions as his subject. The writing of the story was itself an act of such ambition, just as in Lonoff’s works art is achieved using the material of “everything humbling from which my own striving, troubled father had labored to elevate us all.”

But Lonoff is actually closer to Nathan’s real father than the young writer recognizes. The impulses of Lonoff’s fictional characters are quashed by “the ruling triumvirate of Sanity, Responsibility and Self-Respect.” Lonoff, as literary father, represents that triumvirate, and its triumph over an unsettled Jewish uncertainty.

Sixteen years later, still striving for elevation above the paternal restrictions, Sanity, Responsibility, and Self-Respect are themselves overthrown by Nathan’s Carnovsky. It is what the younger Zuckerman might have called an “un-Jamesian lapse from the amenities.” Carnovsky is an attempt at liberating the writer from an enclosed system of constraints. “You felt stultified writing ‘proper, responsible’ novels,” Zuckerman’s agent reminds him, “You felt stultified calling Florida every Sunday like the good son, you felt stultified signing stop-the-war petitions like the good citizen, you felt stultified most of all living with a do-gooder like your wife.” Carnovsky was not just a book. It was an act that effectively changed the writer’s life, causing his divorce, cutting him off from the moral ties of family and obligation. The book, literally and literarily, is a revolt against the moral voice of Nathan’s father by “the son who’d been fighting his every thought,” straining for the “deep emancipating world of Art.”

So when, in the final chapter of Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan flies down to Florida to see his dying father, that meeting is the climax of the dizzying fictional extravaganza of the earlier part of the book, with its confusion of art and the real. Nathan’s father has no such confusion. He has a view of writing that verges on the misreadings of Zuckerman’s fans: “People don’t read art,” the father told Nathan in The Ghost Writer, objecting to the unseemly portraits of Jews in “Higher Education.” “People don’t read art—they read about people.” Art is moral; it has responsibilities. He is a writer himself, composing hundreds of letters to Johnson and Humphrey protesting the Vietnam war; that pile of collected writings is “nearly as fat as War and Peace.”

The battle with the father, then, is over the entire territory of Nathan’s art. “Proceed, Nathan, to father the father,” the author tells himself as he lectures to the moral man lying on his deathbed, “You’ll change him yet.” The father’s literal literary mind had been silenced by a stroke—until he looks Nathan in the eyes and whispers, “Bastard.”

Nathan, the wordsmith, toys with that sound, wondering if he heard correctly or to what it could be referring. Nathan’s brother tells him the truth; the father had read Carnovsky, that’s why he called his son “Bastard.” The word disowns the son. “You killed him, Nathan. With that book.” The book was meant to figuratively free the writer from the father; it literally did so. The literary is literal. “You and your ‘liberating’ book,” says the brother. But it worked. Zuckerman is free. “He had become himself again—though with something unknowable added: he was no longer any man’s son. Forget fathers, he told himself. Plural.” He is released. “Over. Over. Over. Over. Over. I’ve served my time.” “You are no longer any man’s son,” he tells himself, “you are no longer some good woman’s husband, you are no longer your brother’s brother, and you don’t come from anywhere anymore, either.”

Literature then seems to have solved his problem. It has subsumed the vrai. It has denied the claims of the real and the moral, leaving Zuckerman unbound. But he is also in complete isolation. Nathan is driven around his old Newark neighborhood, now a slum, locked in a limo, the driver packing a .38 revolver. His art is not about people—that aesthetic died with his father—it is about itself. The Revenge of the “Vrai.”

Zuckerman is bound again. He may be a Prometheus, stealing parental flames for civilizing purposes, but he is left with a pathetic, onanistic idea of Art; it is a private project, a search for freedom, its flamboyance without civilizing heat.

There are many puzzles left about this book. Roth’s position is not Zuckerman’s. Literature, he shows, in the brilliantly executed final scenes, has “real consequences.” The father has the final word. Literature is about more than itself; it is more than a set of formal relations between words; it has a moral force; literature is an act.

But if literature is part of a larger social fabric, why is Roth’s canvas so small, why are the social analogies in the book so forced? Why are references to Oswald and Ruby and the Vietnam war so strained (just as they were in My Life as a Man)? Is there anything outside the narcissism of this writer, or is he, like his character, permanently locked into it?

There is perhaps one other indication of the author’s position. Zuckerman Unbound ends in 1969. The Ghost Writer tells of events taking place in 1956, but it is written twenty years later, in Roth’s fictional conceit, by Zuckerman himself.

So Zuckerman Unbound is not a sequel to The Ghost Writer. The order is reversed. The Ghost Writer is the book Zuckerman himself will write, seven years after the pathetic end of this work. That will be Zuckerman’s attempt to return to his literary origins, to reestablish his relationship to his past, to understand the making of Art from Life, and revise his vision of his father, and his own moral struggles.

Zuckerman Unbound may be just such a Zuckermanizing attempt for Roth. With its ironic perspective on Zuckerman’s bounded world, Roth seems to want Zuckerman to free him from the very desire to be freed that plagues Zuckerman. The result may be a double bind; Roth may be left as bound as his character. The book raises all of the questions of Roth’s career. Is his fiction a Promethean gift? What is its civilizing power? To what end is it used by the author? What stand does it take “Dans le vrai?” Zuckerman Unbound is affecting and intriguing; it fascinates with the cleverness of its circumscribed fictional world. Zuckerman himself really seems unbound by the end of the book, though far from free. Roth, it is clear, wants more; his unbinding, though, is not yet completed.

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