Sunday, November 20, 2011


"The Counterlife" is an awesome name for a great book. It continues my erratic wandering through Philip Roth's canon. It hasn't exactly been reverse-chronological, though my overall direction has, of necessity, been backwards. I started with "American Pastoral" in college, which remains not only my favorite Roth book but probably one of my favorite books, period. Since then I've gone through "I Married a Communist", "The Plot Against America," and now, The Counterlife.

Oh, yeah, before I get into Counterlife, I should report briefly on the Roth book that I DIDN'T read. At one point I decided to start reading Roth in chronological order. Not exhaustively, but I wanted to pick, say, his Zuckerman books, and actually read them in the order they were published. I decided to start with his first famous book, "Portnoy's Complaint." Well. I lasted for all of, um, maybe twenty pages, before I gave up and returned the book to the library. I tend not to think of myself as much of a prude, but that book really managed to get under my skin. I think it has much more to do with Roth's brilliant/terrifyingly-gripping use of language, and the insistent voice that the first-person narrator uses, which makes it seem much filthier than it actually is. I mean, I read all of Murakami's books, which have WAY more disturbing sex scenes, but those are conveyed in such a detached, dreamlike fashion that it's easy for me to ignore them. It was impossible for me to ignore Portnoy, and I couldn't imagine putting up with that throughout the whole book, so I gave up. I dunno… I may try again at some point, when I'm more worldly-wise and cynical.

Anyways, the reason I think of this now is that The Counterlife is one of the Zuckerman novels, and it feels much more like a "real" Zuckerman novel to me than the others I've read have. Nathaniel Zuckerman is Roth's alter-ego, a Jewish-American novelist from New Jersey who narrates and appears in many of his books. American Pastoral was technically a Zuckerman novel, but Nathan was hardly in it; he appears in the early pages, describing his childhood with the Swede, and then simply narrates the remainder of the story, disappearing from the action entirely. The Counterlife, in comparison, is almost entirely about Zuckerman. Usually he's on the page, and when he isn't the characters are usually thinking about him. Roth has a great sense of humor about this situation, and he plays around a lot with the author-as-character idea, and much of the book is about writing fiction and fiction's relationship to real life. The in-book equivalent of Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" is Zuckerman's fictional novel "Carnovsky", which does a great job of evoking the same feel as the real book's title. As far as I can tell, Carnovsky's role in Zuckerman's universe is very similar to Portnoy's in ours: it's a shocking, filthy, widely respected book that catapulted its author into literary stardom, and secured him a position as a professional writer. Given this equivalent, it's also tempting and easy to imagine that the other effects of Carnovsky also occurred for Portnoy's Complaint. Zuckerman wrote Carnovsky roughly based on his own childhood; the family in that book is recognizable as his own real-life family, and many (but not all) incidents in that book "really happened." This causes a large rift between Nathan and the other Zuckermans: his parents feel betrayed, and die afterwards of illness without ever having been reconciled. Zuckerman's brother, Henry, also becomes estranged, and they go for many years without speaking to one another. Henry is upset at the way Nathan has betrayed their family's privacy, but he's almost equally as upset that Nathan didn't even faithfully betray it. Nathan uses his family as characters, twisting their actions, putting words in their mouths, in order to serve his literary purposes. This makes people assume that the fictional Carnovsky family's traits are shared by the "real" Zuckerman family, making them seem grotesque.

Anyways… that's almost just background for this book. The plot itself is pretty intriguing, but I should address that under the heading of


The plot of the story: Two grown brothers, who have spent years without speaking to one another, re-enter a fraught relationship. One of the brothers has developed a heart ailment; this is easily treatable by drugs, but a side-effect of the drug leaves him impotent and unable to please his lover. He becomes obsessed with the idea of undergoing a slightly risky surgical procedure to fix his heart; everyone, including his lover, opposes this idea, but he decides to go through with it, and something drastic happens after the surgery.

That's the plot. What's cool, though, is that the details are changed and repeated throughout the story. At first, Henry is the brother with the heart problem, and he dies after the operation. Then, he survives the operation, but becomes extremely depressed, and leaves his wife and lover behind when he travels to Israel to join a militant Jewish settlement. In some of these stories, Nathan lives nearby in New York; in others, he lives in England with an English wife. Then, in the later stories, Nathan is the one suffering from impotence and contemplating surgery. Nathan dies, but leaves behind stories in which he survives, and which imagine his future life with his new wife.

It took a while for me to get what was happening. There are only… I think five named chapters in the whole book, and they often go for a long time between section breaks. Sometimes a section break continues the story, sometimes it switches to a parallel track, and sometimes it takes you into another universe. Anyways, I was a bit confused after the part that ended with Henry's funeral and Nathan's conversation with Carol, when the next part began with Henry having fled to Israel. I had initially thought that Roth was opening up the chronology of the story: where we, as readers, had assumed that the funeral took place very shortly after the surgery, we were now reading about a long coda within Henry's life, between his choice and his death. That would have been a cool approach, and I think it sort of works - it's harder to buy Nathan's changes in situation, but you can imagine the people at the funeral being upset about Henry's operation, not because (as we assume) he dies on the table, but because it snaps something in his mind that makes him go on a years-long jag that ends in his death.

Anyways… that's not what happens, which I eventually figured out. We keep getting multiple perspectives and multiple realities; in one really nice bit, there's a long and surprisingly intense account of Nathan's flight from Tel Aviv airport back to London, where a would-be hijacker tries to enlist him in his plot and they both are roughly interrogated; later, we learn that the flight back to London was uneventful, and Nathan had kept busy by writing the story we just read.

I love the title "The Counterlife," and I love how Roth uses that as his operating framework for the novel. A counterlife is still your life, but a fundamentally differently imagined one: a life where you married someone else, where you made a different crucial decision, where you switched roles with someone else. Each individual life is very richly explored and detailed, and whenever we switch to a new counterlife, we come into the new life with an accumulated understanding of the person and their situation which makes the story even richer.

The book gets extremely "meta" towards the end. After Nathan dies, Henry goes through his papers, where he discovers drafts of the book Nathan has been working on. That book is the one we've been reading: it starts with Basel, which is about Henry's affairs with Wendy (his dental assistant) and other women, and his relationship with Carol and his drive to have the surgery. Within "The Counterlife," Henry is incensed; Nathan has taken HIS problem of impotence and projected it onto Henry, reversing their positions. Henry's greatest complaint, though, is fundamental to Nathan's provision: he's an author. Henry's interior monologue seethes and rages at the way Nathan always had to be on top, and wasn't just content with being the best, but felt the need to control others, putting words into their mouths and thoughts in their head inside his books. It's a view of author-as-tyrannical-God that's pretty fascinating.

Once this perspective gets opened up, Roth continues running with this theme through the remainder of the book. In the next section, which picks up the previous storyline by having Nathan return from Israel and reunite with his (fourth) wife, Maria, we learn that Nathan has died, and Maria describes her own experience of going through Nathan's papers; it's yet another counterlife, Maria and Henry, who never "met" in any of these worlds but whose roles reflect one another. Maria also comments on the various stories that we've already read; intriguingly, she also reacts to a story that we haven't yet read, entitled "Christendom," describing which parts of this story were accurate, which were embellished, and how reading that story makes her feel about her relationship with Nathan. "Christendom" ends up being the final chapter in "The Counterlife," and it's a cool shift to now be reading a story after hearing an outsider's gloss, rather than matching a gloss against a story we've already read. "Christendom" ends up being the trickiest and most meta of the stories. In "The Counterlife," none of the stories are finally "real", but form a sort of Ouroboros, each springing from some other story, each writing another story. Characters throughout this book have worried about BEING characters within Nathan's stories, and it seems as though Maria may have suffered this fate. She ultimately rebels against it (and Roth has a nice hat-tip to the literary tradition of characters turning against authors - I thought of Muriel Spark here, though I'm sure there are other examples), leaving Nathan the final task of arguing with a woman who may be his creation, may be his salvation, may be more real than him.

A few other thoughts:

Wow, Roth (and I suppose Nathan) is a master of honoring individuals' perspectives. There aren't straw men anywhere in his book, which is filled with passionate debate between opinionated individuals. He lets a character go on for pages and pages, building a highly persuasive argument, to the point where you're convinced that this is what Roth intends us to believe; then he lets Nathan or someone else respond, just as eloquently and as long. The authorial weight ends up supporting Nathan's perspectives, but by the end of the book I felt like this was Nathan's authorial weight, not Roth's. The book seems to support the idea that Nathan is kind of a bully, who gets to give himself the final word, even if along the way he tries to craft his opponents as carefully and widely as possible.

To give one specific example: during Nathan's trip to Israel, Mordecai Lippman comes across as a villain, and one of the biggest examples of this is his sneering disdain for Western niceties such as treaties and human rights. To Lippman, all that matters is strength, force, the ability of one group to exert their desires over another group. To Nathan, this is anathema, and one of the most morally dangerous aspects of Henry's association with the group. Much later on, the last few pages of the book deal with the future of Nathan's and Maria's potential, presumed son. Nathan has an interior, and then an exterior, diatribe against the christening of his son; he's horrified at the thought of doing it, and calls out and then browbeats Maria into acknowledging that this superstitious, religious ritual has no place on their son. Then, in the next stage, Maria responds with her own nascent fear: that Nathan will insist on circumcision for their son. Now, from a purely humanistic, secular, disinterested standpoint, there is almost no difference between christening and circumcision. If anything, as Maria gently notes, circumcision is the worse of the two: it's a traumatic pain inflicted on a young child. Nathan isn't religious, so will he be satisfied to spare his child this ritual? The book's last page has Nathan's response: no, absolutely not; as much as he wants Maria back, he will insist on their child being circumcised. He can't even muster a very persuasive argument, arguing that the pain is itself important, a crucial waking-up of the child to the cruelties of the world and the necessity of retreating into your own people-group. Nathan the author is explicitly giving himself the last word in the novel; however, I think that Roth the author expects us to draw the parallel between Nathan and Lippman. Nathan, for all his sophistication, intelligence, and charm, is as much of a bully as Lippman is, and has no more moral justification for what he does. He wants his family's traditions to continue, and not those of his wife's family, because… well, because he's more powerful (richer, older, smarter), and can get away with it.

As with… well, pretty much all Roth books that I've read, Jewishness in general and the American-Jewish identity in particular are important themes to the book. I think it's more central here than anything else I've read; not necessarily throughout the whole book, but certainly the middle chapters in Israel are almost entirely preoccupied with these questions of race, culture, identity, and politics; and even the sections that aren't explicitly about Jewish identity are still mostly about Nathan, and as we learn throughout the book, Nathan has been certainly shaped by his experiences. Most of the book paints a positive picture of American assimilation and the opportunities for Jewish people in this country, which has largely escaped the deeply ingrained anti-semitism of Europe. As Nathan points out towards the end, though, he tends to be in a contrary position no matter where he goes: in Israel, surrounded by Jews, he defends the goyim and downplays the importance of Jewish identity; in England, surrounded by bigots, he passionately argues for a visible and strong Jewish identity. I'm not sure exactly what Roth's main point is, if he has one, but it's a very powerful one. Not for the first time, I find myself kind of wishing that I knew what it felt like to grow up Jewish in a majority-Christian culture; I'm guessing that someone with that background would have a more deeply emotional connection with the themes that Roth likes to use in his books.


I have absolutely no regrets about reading American Pastoral, and think it's still my favorite, but I do think that The Counterlife is at LEAST as tempting of a book to use in a college-level English Lit class. There are just so many directions you can go with it, it's such a great (and un-annoying) example of post-modernist literature, so many various themes (political, cultural, personal, relational, familial) that could be plumbed for paper topics… not to mention that it's a fairly easy read (not too light, but not needlessly ornate either), sectioned well to fit into a syllabus. It isn't something like Ulsysses, which I don't think I could have read outside of a class, but I think this good book could get even better with the guidance and discussion of a focused class.

Hmmm, that's a fun experiment… in the unbelievably tiny chance that I ever do teach a college English lit class, what would I want to teach in it? That might be a good topic for a future blog post!

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