Philip Roth dedicates his fourth full-length novel about Nathan Zuckerman “To my father at eighty-five,” and those who have been keeping up with Roth’s recent fiction will probably suspect that—on this very first page of text—something more than a heartwarming personal note is being sounded. After all, the center-piece of Zuckerman Unbound (1981) was the deathbed curse of Zuckerman senior: a devastating retort to his son’s “artistic license” and “writer’s freedom.” In case the reader (unlike some of Roth’s critics) is not inclined toward biographical research, Roth is now telling us that his father isn’t dead at all, that the real son is perhaps not so painfully estranged from the real father, that “Zuckerman” (whatever his usefulness as an alter ego may be) does not necessarily equal “Roth.” And so begins a cautionary lecture series—How Not To Read Philip Roth—that will form, both implicitly and very explicitly indeed, one layer of this elaborate, impassioned, fitfully commanding new novel.
The role of instructor isn’t a new one for Roth, of course. In one manner or another (essays, interviews, stories), he has been trying to clarify the nature of autobiographical fiction ever since such seeming self-portraits as Neil Klugman and Alexander Portnoy began drawing shocked responses from critics, rabbis, and (apparently) relatives. With My Life as a Man (1974), an entire novel was on one level turned into a lecture-demonstration, an explanatory exercise. The book’s first section consists of two very different stories about writer Nathan Zuckerman (his first appearance in the Roth oeuvre), “drawn from the writings of” fictional novelist Peter Tarnopol. These “Useful Fictions,” as they’re labeled, are in some fundamental respects autobiographical—for Philip Roth the novelist and, as we soon learn from the Tarnopol memoir that follows the Zuckerman tales (“My True Story”), for his fictional counterpart Peter Tarnopol. More striking than any resemblance, however, are the discrepancies among the narratives. In the first story, “Salad Days,” Nathan Zuckerman, viewed by an omniscient narrator, is a skinny hero with two brothers and crass parents; in “Courting Disaster,” he’s the “beefy” narrator, with a sister, a brother, and two thoroughly inoffensive parents. Neither character matches Tarnopol’s mock-authentic self-portrait. Nor do any of the three incarnations coincide, in details or spirit, with the Nathan Zuckerman to come, the one who has been Roth’s focus for nearly a decade—from the 1950s youth of The Ghost Writer (1979) through three full-scale sequels, one novella, and some twenty years of professional and domestic anxiety.
The point? Roth spells it out, repeatedly, pedagogically, in The Counterlife: “Contrary to the general belief, it is the distance between the writer’s life and his novel that is the most intriguing aspect of his imagination.” In fact, to an even greater extent than My Life as a Man, this new novel is itself—on its most superficial, pyrotechnical level—an impressive show-and-tell performance, reminding all slow learners once again that the …