Friday, 17 February 2012

Philip Roth: Zuckerman Unbound

Fame and wealth can weigh heavily on a writer’s conscience; so argues Philip Roth’s novel Zuckerman Unbound, a delicious satire on celebrity culture, a parody of the Marilyn Monroe/Arthur Miller myth, and an examination of where a writer goes after he’s achieved success.

When he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Roth not only became a literary sensation, he also gave birth to a controversy that he's incorporated into his fiction. Writing about a sex-crazed Jewish man who was obsessed with his mother, Roth was accused of writing an autobiography in the guise of a novel. In fact he was writing a novel in the guise of a confession by a patient to his psychiatrist. It was, amongst other things, a satire on the rising popularity of psychiatry. People missed the joke and decided Roth was writing about himself. Finding a newfound talent for humour, Roth, rather than clearing things up, decided to embrace the confusion by writing novels that blurred even further the lines between fiction and reality. Zuckerman Unbound is about a Jewish novelist called Nathan Zuckerman who has written the popular Carnovsky. His face was on the cover of Times. He mingles with famous people, including the actress Caesarea O’Shea; people accost him in the street. Zuckerman’s famous, but he doesn’t have peace of mind. People have confused his protagonist, Gilbert Carnovsky, with him, and some chastise him for having brought shame to his family whereas others praise him for doing it with ‘all those chicks’ in the novel. There’s no doubt the novel has something to do with sex (the title obviously comes from carne, the Latin word for flesh; incidentally it’s also where we get carnival from), lots of sex:

“For depicting Jews in a peep-show atmosphere of total perversion, for depicting Jews in acts of adultery, exhibitionism, masturbation, sodomy, fetishism, and whoremongery,” somebody with letterhead stationary as impressive as the President’s had even suggested that he “ought to be shot.”

And Zuckerman has reasons to feel worried. It’s 1969; Vietnam has turned many Americans crazy and the country into an ideological battlefield. “Just about a year before, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been gunned down by assassins.” Being popular isn’t a bed of roses, even if the newspapers claim he's having sex with movie stars; Zuckerman becomes a magnet for all sorts of weirdoes, some harmless, others dangerous.

Alvin Pepler, for instance, adores Zuckerman; he was famous once too, a TV celebrity; for three weeks in a row he was the winner of a quiz show, “Smart Money.” He has a photographic memory that has allowed him to store large quantities of that useless trivia that feeds said quiz shows. The show, however, was rigged in order to make the performance more interesting for viewers. Performance is the real word for Pepler sees himself as an artist:

That is the difference, in point of fact, between shlock and art. Shlock goes every which way and couldn’t care less about anything but the buck, and art is controlled, art is managed, art is always rigged.

And there you have it: there’s no difference between art and a rigged TV show, or a scripted reality show, I presume.You can just feel Roth laughing to himself as he typed each word.

Pepler’s comparison, however, is a cry of despair from a self-deluded loser. TV was his life and also a way for a former Jewish kid from Newark to promote the cause of all Jews in America. By proving that he knew more about America than anyone else, he would prove Jews were every bit a part of America as… Americans, I guess. That’s why he felt slighted when the producers asked him to lose to a WASP competitor; and not on just any topic, but on “Americana.” Pepler believes this was in fact a plot to humiliate all American Jews, by showing one of them fail on prime time at questions about American pop culture; and now he’s going to write a book where he denounces the whole sordid story.  He just needs Zuckerman, his hero, a fellow artist, another Newark guy, and a national sensation, to help him.

(In this novel, Zuckerman claims to have almost no memory of these 1950s shows; in Portnoy’s Complaint, Alex Portnoy works for a commission that investigated the quiz shows. See how clever Roth is, creating these inconsistencies between his alter egos in order to make fun of those readers trying to read them as autobiography?)

Pepler is a hilarious character. He’s menacingly affable, tiresome but also able to enthral Zuckerman in his spiral of obsessions and conspiracies. Zuckerman quickly realizes he’s nuts, but at the same time finds him literarily fascinating.

More dangerous is the caller demanding a ransom and threatening to kill Zuckerman’s mother. Maybe he’s Pepler; maybe not. But he also admires his work, as he explains in a brilliant passage when he turns into a literary critic:

   “I’m a fan. I admit, despite the insults. I’m an admirer, Zuckerman. I’m somebody who has been following your career for years now. I’ve been waiting for a long time for you to hit it big with the public. I knew it would happen one day. It had to. You have a real talent. You make things come alive for people. Though frankly I don’t think this is your best book.”
   “Oh, don’t you?”
   “Go ahead, put me down, but the depth isn’t there. Flash, yes; depth, no. This is something you had to write to make a new beginning. So it’s incomplete, it’s raw, it’s pyrotechnics. But I understand that. I even admire it. To try new things a new way is the only way to grow. I see you growing enormously as a writer, if you don’t lose your guts.”
   “And you will grow with me, is that the idea?”
   The mirthless laugh of the stage villain. “Haw. Haw. Haw.”

This excerpt highlights two things I love about Philip Roth: fearless self-scrutiny; and the ability to laugh at himself. I don’t presume to be a Roth scholar, but I have read almost twenty books by him, and it’s undeniable that his writing changed after Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth is an excellent reader of his own work. His earlier books, namely Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go and When She Was Good are fine works, but you can notice a change of tone: Roth became more self-reflexive, satirical, imaginative. His first two novels are characterised by that mistake many novice writers make, equating dourness with Literature with a capital L. This serious writer would never have written comical masterpieces like Our Gang and The Great American Novel. On the other hand, Roth must have been aware the success of his novel did not reflect its quality. It would have been simple to have continued to repeat the formula instead of having ‘guts’ to grow. I know a common accusation thrown at Roth is that he always writes the same book, but his later masterpieces - My Life As a Man, Operation: Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral – not only showed an emotional growth and a preoccupation with diverse themes, they’re also better than his sexually scandalous novel.

The question of having ‘guts’, or courage, is also a theme Roth explored in a previous novel, The Ghost Writer, the beginning of Nathan Zuckerman’s story. In this novel, young Zuckerman wrestles with alienation from his parents caused by his frank early short-stories dealing with his family, which lead to the first accusations of anti-Semitism. From the start, Roth makes it clear writing is not an innocent activity. This novel sees Zuckerman trying to make amends with his dying father and younger brother. The key word here is trying. The novel never shies away from showing the impact of his writing on the lives of others and how a writer’s commitment to truth may eventually undo him. Carnovsky becomes the centre of his life, a concern consuming his attention and energies, and it’s a cautionary tale to all would-be writers: writing is a solitary activity; and the cost of a writer writing well about people may be that he must live distantly from other people.


  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Philip Roth's writing. The last one I read was Everyman. I keep thinking I might go back and read all the Zuckerman books in order one of these days.

  2. Hello, Laurie! Thanks for the nice words.

    I didn't read them in order, but I'm sure Roth would prefer it that way :)

  3. I love all of the Zuckerman novels that I have read thus far.

    You raise a good point in pointing out the theme of blurring fiction and reality in Roth's works. I like the way that Roth sometimes takes it one step further and explores the ambiguity be between perception and reality. As you noted, people perceived Portnoy’s Complaint to be autobiography, while in reality it may not have been what they believed it to be.

    1. Hello, Brian.

      He outdoes himself when he inserts himself in the books; 'Operation: Shylock' is perhaps his best work on identity, since it's about a man pretending to be Philip Roth; and 'The Plot Against America' is also amazing because he invents an alternate US history and how his life would have been in it. It's bold stuff.