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 novelist is not a slave to his “real-life” materials, that verisimilitude is achieved through craft, not confession.
Roth’s specific strategy in The Counterlife is prefigured in the “My True Story” section of My Life as a Man, when blocked writer Tarnopol describes how his stalled novel “would change in mid-sentence”: abrupt alterations in the situation, the cast of characters, the viewpoint. Just such changes of direction twist up without warning (if not quite in mid-sentence) throughout The Counterlife—which begins as the 1978 story of Nathan Zuckerman’s brother Henry, a New Jersey dentist and philandering husband who, suffering from heart disease, is forced to choose between sexual impotence (and the loss of vacuous young mistress Wendy) and dangerous bypass surgery. Seen first from Henry’s tremulous viewpoint, then from brother Nathan’s more cynical one, the story quickly proceeds to Henry’s postbypass funeral, an occasion for Nathan to explore both the fragile grandeur of sexual infatuation (was Henry “the shmuck to end all shmucks” or a suburban Byron?) and the familiar guilt about fueling his insatiable fiction machine with family material. (“Henry wasn’t dead twenty-four hours when the narrative began to burn a hole in Zuckerman’s pocket. He was now going to have a very hard time getting through the day without seeing everything that happened as more, a continuation not of life but of his work or work-to-be…. Entering the synagogue with Carol and the kids, he thought, ‘This profession even fucks up grief.’ “)
Begin the next section, however, and the rules have suddenly changed. The first consciously literary shift is a tame, not uncommon one: as with the two “Useful Fictions” in My Life as a Man, “Nathan” abruptly gives way to “I” and “me” in the narration. But far more flam-boyantly, the story itself now breaks the usual contract with the reader, contradicting—rather than building on—what has gone before. According to the book’s second of five chapters (called “Judea”), Henry didn’t die in 1978; instead, he emerged from surgery spiritually transformed, abandoning his family not for lust but for a born-again blend of fanatical Zionism and religiosity that takes him to a frontier settlement on the West Bank. So, in this alternate version, narrator Nathan arrives in Israel as a Jamesian ambassador of sorts—hoping to bring Henry (or a satisfactory explanation) home to the New Jersey Zuckermans, finding his own skeptical views on Jewish identity vigorously challenged. And subsequent chapters provide even more drastic rewrites of the basic situation, including a Chinese-box variation that gives Nathan the heart trouble, along with different reasons for risking surgery (true love and the desire for fatherhood) and several postoperative scenarios.
At first, this narrative magic act does indeed register as—among other things—a dazzling rebuke to critics who’ve treated Roth’s fiction as recyclings of his private life. (That issue, says Nathan in one of the later narrative splinters, is “a very boring subject about which, over these many years, I have already heard too much from too many people.”) Each of the mutually exclusive variations in the novel’s early sections is delivered with the artistry—the imaginative details and emotional intensity—that generates the illusion of authenticity; each of these sequences, too, has the storytelling power that raw authenticity alone rarely supplies. (“People don’t turn themselves over to writers as full-blown literary characters—generally they give you very little to go on and, after the impact of the initial impression, are barely any help at all.”) Roth makes touching figures out of both Nathan-the-mourner and Nathan-the-ambassador, even though they can’t both be “true” portraits of Henry Zuckerman’s older brother. Moreover, by turning the domestic drama of “Judea” into a miniature novel of ideas, a debate between Zuckerman and spokesmen for Jewish nationalism, Roth offers further rebuttal to the notion of a novelist at the mercy of his autobiographical obsessions: this novelist, he proclaims, not only consciously controls the story—characters, course of events, tone, viewpoint—but also what kind of fiction the story will be used to construct.
But if, when read as part of an ongoing dialogue between Roth and his readers (particularly some critics), The Counterlife scores a series of quick triumphs, it ultimately may be more undone than enhanced by that very element of interplay between writer and audience. The insistent repetition of the art-is-not-life message—in literal, hectoring (if frequently eloquent) terms—is likely to alienate or distract most readers through the novel’s weaker second half, certainly those readers who recall similar harangues from My Life as a Man and the Zuckerman trilogy. In his argumentative excess, even perhaps in his stubborn proffering of yet another Zuckerman novel (when the trilogy’s conclusion was greeted with considerable relief), Roth emerges here, more transparently than ever before, as a writer fiercely preoccupied—despite his apparent aloofness—with his critics. (The caricature of Irving Howe in The Anatomy Lesson, though blatant, came across as a comic aberration, more Zuckerman’s hang-up than Roth’s vendetta.) It’s difficult not to be reminded of the Nathan Zuckerman of “Courting Disaster” in My Life as a Man, who sees in himself a pattern of Bartleby-like defiance—passive, irrational, sometimes self-destructive; or the Nathan Zuckerman of “Salad Days,” who revels in his role of “enemy of the world” and in his inability to “get along better with people.”
Such chronic, all-purpose defiance is usually, as Nathan Zuckerman himself acknowledges, the flip side of, or a reaction against, the “dreamy, needy, and helpless child” in desperate search of approval and acceptance. And while a defiant author’s presence can be felt (sometimes to an oppressive degree) through The Counterlife, the escalating proliferation of narrative gimmicks suggests the simultaneous presence of another overcompensating force: the author as showman, up-to-date and eager to please. At the novel’s midpoint, after Roth has made arresting, distinctive use of “metafictional” devices, the self-conscious, book-within-a-book artifice becomes denser, cleverer, more generic. There are brain-teaser games with stolen manuscripts, shuffled time frames, characters who rebel against their author. Reminiscent of the contortions of such postmodernist watershed volumes as John Barth’s stupefying Letters and Gilbert Sorrentino’s infectious Mulligan Stew, these maneuvers seem designed—with undeniable energy and intricacy—to grab the attention of critics (academic, trendy) who’ve had limited interest in Roth’s plainer, deceptively straightforward narratives. But, like the other excesses that arise in part from Roth’s apparent compulsion to battle or seduce his readers in text or subtext, the metafictional overkill in The Counterlife may help to obscure the novel’s sporadic brilliance.
The book’s opening sequence, for instance, succeeds in investing one of metafiction’s central clichés—the heightened awareness that what we’re reading is a made-up story—with the sort of emotional power that’s rarely found in post-modernism’s brittle precincts. Henry Zuckerman, contemplating his medico-psychosexual crisis and nostalgically recalling his childhood, feels a dislocation, as if watching or reading two stories simultaneously:
Waiting at dusk for the bus home from the Saturday afternoon movie. Yes, the man to whom this was happening had been that boy waiting with his older brother for the Number 14 bus. He couldn’t grasp it—he could as well have been trying to understand particle physics. But then he couldn’t believe that the man to whom it was happening was himself and that, whatever this man must undergo, he must undergo too. Bring the past back, the future, bring me back the present—I am only thirty-nine!
When Nathan then takes over the narration and attends Henry’s funeral, listening to a fundamentally distorted eulogy from the widow (“a subtle and persuasive writer of domestic fiction”), that sense of life as a life story—impossible to rewrite, except in the imagination—deepens. The word “story” reverberates effectively through the novel’s first half: the sudden changes in the narrative seem not just received devices, not just aggressive display, but desperate maneuvers in the face of mortality. And storytelling—as a way of reclaiming the past, defying death, escaping pain—develops as an independent theme, but one that usually intensifies the basic human material in the early chapters: grieving, loss, family, fatherhood. (Nathan’s strongest argument against Henry’s relocation to the West Bank is the semidesertion of his young children back in New Jersey: ” ‘You can shell Jerusalem from here,’ Henry told me, while I thought, Wendy, Carol, our father, the kids.”)
“The kind of stories that people turn life into, the kind of lives that people turn stories into….” Roth clearly intends for his book-length gamesmanship to remain grounded in this tough-minded yet warmblooded recognition; but the later convolutions eventually overwhelm the novel, retroactively blurring the singular impact of the book’s first one hundred pages. Similarly, the theme announced in the title—the attempted escape from ourselves into some “counterlife” offered by new roles, places, romances, allegiances—is a promising one that’s only erratically sustained. At first elegantly paralleled by the quick-change escapes of the narrative itself, the broad counterlife theme is soon lost in the postmodernist thicket. It’s also undermined by the fact that one specific manifestation of the theme—Jewishness as an identity to escape into, or escape from—becomes ungainly, throwing the novel (a precarious study in cross-purposes to begin with) off balance.
The Counterlife, in fact, often seems to be at least two books roughly cobbled into one—not because of the contradictory story lines, but because of a lack of selectivity and shape. Jewishness—almost always a controversial issue in Roth’s work, yet rarely the frankly primary one—this time virtually demands a book of its own, one without the larger patterns, without the slippery distractions of metafiction (even if there’s something inarguably Talmudic about the either/or, back-and-forth quality of the narrative).
The “Judea” section, coming early in the novel, suffers least. Roth’s reportorial verve and Nathan Zuckerman’s subdued anxiety (isn’t the “normal Jew,” he wonders, a model of unapologetic assimilation?) come together in a dreamlike episode at the Wailing Wall, where Nathan primly resists the minyan-gathering efforts of a relentless young Hassid. Roth’s gift for comic madness, last exploited in the Alvin Pepler section of Zuckerman Unbound and sadly missing from the claustrophobic The Anatomy Lesson (1983), makes an exhilarating reappearance in Nathan’s encounter with hyped-up Jimmy Ben-Joseph (né Lustig) from West Orange, New Jersey—Zuckerman fan extraordinaire, student of the Diaspora Yeshivah, and reductio ad absurdum of the Jewish-American expatriate in Israel:
“That’s the thing that’s missing here. How can there be Jews without baseball? I ask Rabbi Greenspan but he don’t comprendo. Not until there is baseball in Israel will Messiah come! Nathan, I want to play center field for the Jerusalem Giants!”
And, despite the limitations of the 1978 (pre-Lebanon) setting, there’s a genuinely fierce collision of ideas, with theatrical fireworks, when Nathan visits his brother Henry in the Judean hills. As expected, Nathan is sardonically acute on the integrity of Jewish-American identity (“In our family the collective memory doesn’t go back to the golden calf and the burning bush, but to ‘Duffy’s Tavern’ and ‘Can You Top This?’ “) and the psychosocial dynamics of Zionism as escapism:
The construction of a counterlife that is one’s own anti-myth was at its very core…. All over the world people were rooting for the Jews to go ahead and un-Jew themselves in their own little homeland. I think that’s why the place was once universally so popular—no more Jewy Jews, great!
But, to an extent rare in a Zuckerman novel, Nathan’s adversary—Henry’s guru, militant West Bank settler Mordecai Lippman (a not altogether successful composite of Sharon, Kahane, and others, “the logical step after Begin, a gangster”)—is given equal time and more than equal eloquence. “The simple truth is I was outclassed,” Nathan confesses to himself, after an evening of Lippman’s canny tirades.
As a free-standing exercise in fiction-as-dialectic, “Judea” has edge and balance. As a chapter in The Counterlife, however, it begins to seem slack and out of proportion. (“Basel,” the opening sequence that explores Henry Zuckerman’s fatal yearnings for an erotic counterlife, is only half as long.) The sense of lopsidedness grows as the book develops: the third chapter, “Aloft,” has Nathan flying home from Israel, rehashing the what-is-a-Jew? debate—in long letters, in a metafictional hijacking (maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t) by the aforementioned Jimmy Ben-Joseph, who’s now reconceived as a deranged “foe of the Jewish superego.” And the theme of Jewishness is most aggressive in the book’s final section: Nathan’s perhaps posthumous vision of life with a young Gentile wife in an England he sees (paranoically?) as ridden with genteel anti-Semitism. Here the narrator’s new insights into ethnicity seem as arbitrary and untrustworthy as the continuing flip-flops in the storytelling: the ideas in “Judea” and “Aloft” are not so much developed as played backward, loudly, at high speed. Thus, when Nathan decides to affirm his Jewish identity (“Circumcision confirms that there is an us”), the interpretative questions—Does this affirmation belong to Roth or Zuckerman or Zuckerman-playing-a-role? Should we see Nathan’s closing statement as an acceptance of self or just one more escape route?—no longer seem worth asking.
The Counterlife is a frustrating book, and an especially disappointing one for admirers of The Ghost Writer. In that much shorter novel, Roth turned comparably ambitious material—entangled themes (most of the same entangled themes, in fact), farce and fantasy along with moody realism—into something both involving and richly ambiguous: an unlikely triumph of restraint, of implicit connections, from a writer whose stock in trade is the energy of uninhibited full disclosure.
But if structural miscalculations and floundering impulses make The Counter-life a much less absorbing novel than it might have been, its feverish imaginings are proof that the main quest of Roth’s career thus far—the exploration of the self through a fictional alter ego—continues to yield powerful, disturbing material. Even when Roth goes astray, he never seems out of touch with his talent (as does, for instance, Norman Mailer in Ancient Evenings and Tough Guys Don’t Dance). Defiance and narcissism, true, may be one part of Roth’s refusal to give up Nathan Zuckerman; but the other part is his justifiable conviction that the artist’s autobiographical figure can transcend self-involvement, as it surely does—to take an example from one of Roth’s literary heroes—in Kafka’s K. Freud, Peter Tarnopol reminds us in My Life as a Man, “studied his own dreams not because he was a ‘narcissist,’ but because he was a student of dreams.” Similarly,
his self is to many a novelist what his own physiognomy is to a painter of portraits: the closest subject at hand demanding scrutiny, a problem for his art to solve—given the enormous obstacles to truthfulness, the artistic problem. He is not simply looking into the mirror because he is transfixed by what he sees.
Tarnopol also quotes Flaubert on “the excesses of the masters! They pursue an idea to its furthermost limits!” And if Roth and Zuckerman can sometimes be exasperating company as they pursue the idea of autobiographical fiction to its furthest limits, the partnership is often unnerving and grimly fascinating—and even, oddly, gallant.