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Working in the Dark

The Anatomy Lesson

by Philip Roth
Ballantine, 240 pp., $3.95 (paper)

God Knows

by Joseph Heller
Knopf, 353 pp., $16.95

Tough Guys Don’t Dance

by Norman Mailer
Random House, 229 pp., $16.95

Henry James said that no one could survive being an American success, and that was back in the age of innocence before they invented the book tour. James hadn’t been shuttled around the country from one broadcasting station to the next or lain on a bed in Washington, DC, and been interviewed, live, by a disc jockey in Washington State. The tribulations involved in achieving modern American literary success have grown in direct proportion to the publishers’ anxiety about protecting their investments. The better known the author, the larger the advance he commands, and the more frantic the promotion he is subjected to. Yet at the end, if a book sells 50,000 copies and edges onto the best-seller list, its author can console himself only with the thought that, although he may have been seen and heard by millions, he has been read, at best, by an average of one thousand people in each state of the Union.

To the writer this may be of no great importance since he submits to this trial by interview not, as Freud said, because “he longs to attain to honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women,” but because he needs to sell enough copies of his last book in order to have the financial security to get on with the next. But the effect on his readership is something else: a commercially marketed author ceases to be an anonymous story-teller known only through what he writes; he becomes a face on TV or a voice from the speakers, a personality. And gradually, the audience comes to prefer the personality to the work because personalities are less demanding than art, and the sometimes scandalous lives of writers can be more diverting than the books they produce.

To complicate the issue, the direction of art in the second half of this century—from the existentialists and action painters through Lowell’s Life Studies and Plath’s last poems to the zanier reaches of confessional verse—has been to break down the barrier between the artist and the work. The two complement each other, and art becomes a fragment with a frame around it, a temporary clearing of calm and order that emerges from the chaos of life and then is swallowed up in it again. Caught between an aesthetic theory that insists on the indivisibility of art and life and marketing techniques that peddle the author as a property in his own right, fewer and fewer readers, one suspects, bother to distinguish fantasy from truth. In the confusion, Roth comes to equal Portnoy, Heller, Yossarian, and Mailer is a literary creation in his own right.

This is an ironic fate for Philip Roth, since he is among the most “literary” of modern American novelists. He is a graduate of the Arnoldian Fifties when literature was considered the supreme discipline for aspiring young moralists—more serious than politics, more subtle than religion. His idols are the monks of fiction—Flaubert, Kafka, Babel, James—recluses dedicated to perfection, for whom failure was more real than success because they at least knew how far short they had fallen from what they might have done. E.I. Lonoff, the Babel redivivus of The Ghost Writer, has pinned above his desk, as a permanent warning against pride, Henry James’s sad credo: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Roth himself seems to have more in common with Lonoff than with Nathan Zuckerman, the hero of his last three novels—The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson. Unlike Lonoff, Roth gives interviews, but mostly in order to emphasize the monastic tedium of his life in rural seclusion, working every day, avoiding the world of literary gossip and promotion, using his reputation to help publish novelists from iron curtain countries who, without him, might not have easily found an audience in the West. (He is general editor of the excellent Penguin series “Writers from the Other Europe.”)

In short, an exemplary life in literature: dedicated, boring, solitary. Yet he is established in the popular fantasy as a man obsessed—with sex, with Jews, with himself. It is true he is obsessed, but mostly, it seems, as an accountant or psychoanalyst or a philologist is obsessed—that is, with his work, and what it costs him in freedom. As Nathan Zuckerman puts it in The Anatomy Lesson:

He thought he had chosen life but what he had chosen was the next page. Stealing time to write stories, he never thought to wonder what time might be stealing from him. Only gradually did the perfecting of a writer’s iron will begin to feel like the evasion of experience, and the means to imaginative release, to the exposure, revelation, and invention of life, like the sternest form of incarceration. He thought he’d chosen the intensification of everything and he’d chosen monasticism and retreat instead…. When, some years later, he went to see a production of Waiting for Godot, he said afterwards to the woman who was then his lonely wife, “What’s so harrowing? It’s any writer’s ordinary day. Except you don’t get Pozzo and Lucky.”

But in modern America the life of a literary loner with a best seller to his credit is as suspect and vulnerable as any other life that goes public. Roth deals with the discrepancy between the ideal of literary life and its glum reality by milking the situation for black comedy. In a recent Paris Review interview (Fall 1984) he had this to say of the Zuckerman trilogy:

I decided…to focus on the unreckoned consequences of a life in art in the world that I knew best. I realized that there were already many wonderful and famous stories and novels by Henry James and Thomas Mann and James Joyce about the life of the artist, but none I knew of about the comedy that an artistic vocation can turn out to be in the USA.

Foremost among those unreckoned consequences is the great, hallucinating, unhinging phenomenon of success American-style: neither honor nor power but riches, fame, and the love of women leading to more riches, more fame, more women—an inflationary spiral ending in a condition much like Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses.

The Zuckerman trilogy spans twenty years, from the complacency of Eisenhower to Nixon’s Watergate. In the opening book Zuckerman is an awe-struck young apprentice, fresh out of college, getting his first astonished glimpse of a life in art. By the second book he is already in shock from the effects of a scandalous best seller; his father dies cursing him, and all the nuts in New York believe he owes them.

The Anatomy Lesson is set in 1973, about ten years later. Zuckerman is still rich, still famous, still beset by women, but now the effect is, literally, to prostrate him. He spends much of the book flat on his back on a play mat, his head supported by a thesaurus, martyred by an undiagnosable pain in his neck and shoulders, and ministered to by an eager team of young women. The thesaurus is a glum reminder of his youthful promise: “Its inside cover was inscribed ‘From Dad—You have my every confidence,’ and dated ‘June 24, 1946.’ A book to enrich his vocabulary upon graduation from grade school.” Vain hope. Physical pain and the depredations of a life in art have stopped him from writing. The young man who had felt daring when he and Lonoff passed a whole evening sipping—but not finishing—one small brandy apiece, now survives on vodka, Percodan, and marijuana.

The Zuckerman trilogy is about obsession, a subject that has always provoked Roth’s best writing. Young Zuckerman is obsessed with the nobility of the literary vocation. Ten years older and a good deal wiser, unbound Zuckerman is obsessed with the squalid backlash of fame. In The Anatomy Lesson vocation and success have rotted down to a debilitating physical pain which, in turn, becomes the object of his obsession. Zuckerman consults doctors, osteopaths, psychoanalysts, dolorists; he spends an excrutiating week in traction; he gobbles Butazolidin, Robaxin, Percodan, Valium, Prednisone, as well as booze and dope; he reads medical books as compulsively as he once read the Great Masters and is authoritative no longer on life and art and morals but only on his own private anatomy of melancholy:

His rib cage was askew. His clavicle was crooked. His left scapula winged out at its lower angle like a chicken’s. Even his humerus was too tightly packed into the shoulder capsule and inserted in the joint on the bias.

It is the comedy of a man who can’t stop himself. No matter how dire the circumstances, Nathan Zuckerman remains a straight-A student who always does his homework.

Literature has become, literally, a pain in the neck, and so, too, has the literary demimonde, particularly as personified by Milton Appel, Harvard professor, literary critic, and inquisitorial defender of the faith who has savaged our hero for betraying all those moral standards the young Zuckerman had been brought up to revere. Appel thereby becomes another obsession and much of the first part of the book is taken up with Zuckerman’s increasingly deranged attempts to answer his tormentor in kind. Appel’s chief crime is another of the “unreckoned consequences of a life in art” in modern America: a dogged literalness that refuses to distinguish between the author and the characters he has invented. “Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.”

It is on this issue that Zuckerman and Roth seem most at one, since Roth himself is now ritually chastised by critics for his self-absorption and narrowness of range. When the Paris Review asked the inevitable question, he answered:

Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift…. Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend…. You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it—all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life.

What excites Roth’s verbal life—and provokes his readers—is, he seems to suggest, the opportunity fiction provides to be everything he himself is not: raging, whining, destructive, permanently inflamed, unstoppable. Irony, detachment, and wisdom are given unfailingly to other people. Even Diana, Zuckerman’s punchy twenty-year-old mistress who will try anything for a dare, sounds sane and bored and grown-up when Zuckerman is in the grip of his obsession. The truly convincing yet outlandish caricature in Roth’s repertoire is of himself.

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