American Pastoral is Philip Roth’s twentieth work of fiction—an accretion of creative energy, a yearly, or almost, place at the starting line of a marathon. But his is a one-man sprint with the signatures, the gestures, the deep breathing, and the repetitiveness, sometimes, of an obsessive talent. Roth has his themes, spurs to his virtuoso variations and star turns in triple time. His themes are Jews in the world, especially in Israel, Jews in the family, Jews in Newark (New Jersey); fame, vivid enough to occasion impostors (Operation Shylock); literature, since the narrators, or, if you like, the performers are writers, actually one writer, Philip Roth, winking under whatever dark-glasses alias. And sex, anywhere in every manner, a penitential workout on the page with no thought of backaches, chafings, or phallic fatigue. Indeed the novels are prickled like a sea urchin with the spines and fuzz of many indecencies.
In American Pastoral we are, on the first page, once more in Newark; and on page sixteen a question is posed to which the answer is, yes, “I’m Zuckerman the author.” Nathan Zuckerman is the author of Carnovsky (Zuckerman Unbound), an alternative title like those sometimes used in foreign transla-tions. In English, the novel is, of course, Portnoy’s Complaint, which provoked among many other responses an eruption of scandal; and the author of the book that brought about a fame and a “recognition factor” equal to that of Mick Jagger is Philip Roth. Or so it is in Zuckerman Unbound, where even a young funeral director, attending the remains of a Prince Seratelli, pauses to ask for the author’s autograph—all part of this wild, very engaging minstrel show in which the writing of a book, Portnoy or Carnovsky, not just any book, may serve as the lively plot for a subsequent book. Of course, we cannot attach Zuckerman or David Kepesh or Peter Tarnopol or Alexander Portnoy to Philip Roth like a fingernail. Not always.
However, if he follows Zuckerman to The Anatomy Lesson, the reader will gain or lose a shiver of interest if he knows that the late critic Irving Howe published in the magazine Commentary some forthright reservations about Roth’s work and that Howe is the “source” of Milton Appel in a rebuttal by Zuckerman or Roth. Howe had written, among other thoughts, some favorable, that “What seems really to be bothering Portnoy is a wish to sever his sexuality from his moral sensibilities, to cut it away from his self as historical creature. It’s as if he really supposed the super-ego, or post coitum triste, were a Jewish invention.”
Zuckerman or Roth cries out some years later in The Anatomy Lesson: “Milton Appel had unleashed an attack upon Zuckerman’s career that made Macduff’s assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical. Zuckerman should have been so lucky as to come away with decapitation. A head wasn’t enough for Appel; he tore you limb from limb.” If he is indeed torn limb from limb, this ferocious paraplegic author pursues Appel/Howe in a motorized wheelchair for almost forty pages.
The structure of Roth’s fiction is based often upon identifying tirades rather than actions and counter-actions, tirades of perfervid brilliance, and this is what he can do standing on his head or hanging out the window if need be. The tirades are not to be thought of as mere angry outbursts in the kitchen after a beer or two, although they are usually angry enough since most of the characters are soreheads of outstanding volubility. The monologues are a presentation of self, often as if on the stage of some grungy Comédie Française, if such an illicit stretch may be allowed. Here is Monkey, the trailer-park Phèdre of Portnoy’s Complaint, in a cameo appearance:
picking on me all the time—in just the way you look at me you pick on me, Alex! I open the door at night, I’m so dying to see you, thinking all day long about nothing but you, and there are those fucking orbs already picking out every single thing that’s wrong with me! As if I’m not insecure enough, as if insecurity isn’t my whole hang-up, you get that expression all over your face the minute I open my mouth…oh, shit, here comes another dumb and stupid remark out of that brainless twat…. Well, I’m not brainless, and I’m not a twat either, just because I didn’t go to fucking Harvard! And don’t give me any more of your shit about behaving in front of The Lindsays. Just who the fuck are The Lindsays? A God damn mayor, and his wife! A fucking mayor! In case you forget, I was married to one of the richest men in France when I was still eighteen years old—I was a guest at Aly Khan’s for dinner, when you were still back in Newark, New Jersey, finger-fucking your little Jewish girl friends!
There you have Monkey and her expressive grievance.
For tirades and diatribes of a more demanding content, nothing Roth has written equals the bizarre explosions of Operation Shylock, a rich, original work composed with an unforgiving complexity if one is trying to unravel the design. It is about the double, the impersonator, the true self, one’s own estimation, and the false self known to the public, the latter brilliantly examined in an account of the trial in Jerusalem of Ivan the Terrible, the allegedly murderous Ukrainian at Treblinka, who is also Demjanjuk, “good old Johnny, the gardener from Cleveland, Ohio.” And standing at not too great a distance from the actual ground of the novel we are reminded of the bad Philip Roth, creator for laughs of American Jewish life in its underwear; and, on the other hand, Philip Roth, artist, observer, inspired comedian of the letter J—“the litanist of the fleas, the knave, the thane, the ribboned stick, the bellowing breeches”—comedian of the folkloric Portnoys and others of their kind.
Operation Shylock: Philip Roth in New York, recovering from depression and suicidal impulses brought on by the drug Halcion. (The doubling mystery of pharmaceutical messages—may cause insomnia or drowsiness. Remember President George Bush, reportedly on the drug, ever windblown and smiling as he relentlessly raced up and down in his “cigarette” boat on the waters outside the summer White House in Kennebunkport, Maine.) Roth, from Halcion, down as a bottom-dwelling flatfish, is planning to go to Israel to interview the novelist Aharon Appelfeld. He learns, as if he had already departed and landed, that someone is giving interviews and lectures under his name, speaking on the radio and announcing an appearance in the King David Hotel on the subject: “Diasporism: The Only Solution to the Jewish Problem. A lecture by Philip Roth.” The double, the impostor, given the fairy-tale name of Pipik, is one of the disputatious inhabitants of the mind of the actual Roth who creates at interesting length the faux, but not altogether faux, debate on the present position of Israel in the world.
Diasporism: “The time has come to return to the Europe that was for centuries, and remains to this day, the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever been, the birthplace of rabbinic Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Jewish secularism, socialism—on and on. The time has come to renew in the European Diaspora our pre-eminent spiritual and cultural role.” In questions and counter-arguments between the true and the false Philip Roth, the horror of the Holocaust is remembered but is now claimed to be a “bulwark against European anti-Semitism.” The mad Pipik is arguing in effect: Europe’s had that, it’s over. “No such bulwark exists in Islam. Exterminating a Jewish nation would cause Islam to lose not a single night’s sleep, except for the great night of celebration. I think you would agree that a Jew is safer today walking aimlessly around Berlin than going unarmed into the streets of Ramallah.”
Pipik has not only, in the name of Roth, proposed his program of Diasporism, he has also organized A.S.A., Anti-Semites Anonymous, which leads to the appearance in the plot of a nurse who is valiantly and with commendable self-discipline in “recovery,” she having taken the twelve steps. In this Israel, “the pasturalization of the ghetto,” prophets and pundits roam the streets, all the while giving off the noise and fumes of opinion. Here, Philip Roth encounters an acquaintance from the past, a Harvard-educated Egyptian enrolled at Roth’s time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and now a famous professor. His name is George Ziad (sic). Zee, as he is called, is also a Diasporist, but for his own reason. His program is to get the Jews out of Israel and thereby return the land to his ancestors, the Palestinians.
Believing that the old Philip Roth of his acquaintance has been transmogrified into the passionate Diasporist of Pipik’s caper, Zee holds forth with feeling about the sufferings of the Palestinians and the inferiority and provincialism of Israeli culture by comparison with that of the Jews in their true homeland, Manhattan. “There is more Jewish spirit and Jewish laughter and Jewish intelligence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan than in this entire country…. There’s more Jewish heart at the knish counter at Zabar’s than in the whole of the Knesset!”
Then the true Philip Roth, taking on the garments of the impostor, Pipik, performs in his fluent rhythms about the greatest Diasporist of all, Irving Berlin.
The radio was playing “Easter Parade” and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.” …Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow. Gone is the gore and the murder of Christ—down with the crucifix and up with the bonnet! …If supplanting Jesus Christ with snow can enable my people to cozy up to Christmas, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!
So goes this curious, hilarious work of a profligate imagination unbound.
Along the way it dashes into sub-plots of many befuddlements and allocations of adventures offered with the pedantic assurance of a mock court indictment. It is suggested, or more or less sworn to, that Philip Roth, the living author, acted as an agent for Mossad, the CIA of Israel, by spying upon “Jewish anti-Zionist elements threatening the security of Israel.” Serving counterintelligence by impersonating the impersonator? The novel is subtitled: A Confession. The preface claims that “The book is as accurate an account as I am able to give of actual occurrences that I lived through during my middle fifties and that culminated, early in 1988, in my agreeing to undertake an intelligence-gathering operation for Israel’s foreign intelligence service, the Mossad.”
A solemn affidavit? Not quite. A note to the reader at the end of the book: “This confession is false.” An operatic divertissement? Aida, the Ethiopian princess stealing war plans from her Egyptian lover for the benefit of her country. Or the false Dimitri and at last old Boris Godunov, Philip Roth, saving the state from the Diasporists and in a cloud of redemption expiring.