Sunday, 13 May 2012

Philip Roth: The Counterlife

Well, that larky, hot stuff was over now, no more mischievously turning what-was into what-wasn’t or what-might-be into what-was – there was only the deadly earnest this-is-it of what-is.

In trying to ascertain what distinguishes the Nathan Zuckerman of the ‘Zuckerman Bound’ trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson) from that of the ‘American’ trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain), it occurred to me that the biggest difference is family. The first Zuckerman spends a good deal of the trilogy alienating his family because of his ruthless devotion to a literature of honesty. By that I mean writing novels inspired by what his relatives consider their private lives; but it’s their scandalous sexuality, breaking of taboos and lurid portrayal of Jewish home life that really ostracises Nathan from his parents and brother. In Zuckerman Unbound, his father dies apparently hating him for bringing shame to their family, and his brother, Henry, blames him for his death. They don’t speak again for years.

The Counterlife is not any less about family. It starts with Henry trying to reconcile with Nathan, for ridiculous reasons, and with disastrous but hilarious consequences. Diagnosed with obstructive arterial disease, Henry starts taking a drug that stabilised his heart condition but renders him impotent. This makes Henry, the good, respectable, dull Zuckerman son, the successful dentist and beloved husband and father, feel miserable because the one relief from his mundane life, the one reckless action he allows himself in his ordered, safe existence, is the daily blowjob he gets from his young assistant, Wendy. Unable to share a sexless life with his wife, Carol, he becomes obsessed with sex or, as Alexander Portnoy would put, ‘cunt crazy’. His only option is to undergo dangerous bypass surgery. So in this dark hour he seeks advice from Nathan, hoping he’ll dissuade him. But as he narrates Nathan his sexual escapades, including one with a European patient, the innate writer in him becomes fascinated with the dramatic possibilities of what he’s listening to. Henry opts for the surgery anyway, and dies.

With boundless imagination, frantic energy and deranged fearlessness, Roth turns the death of the final link to Nathan’s family into an event that forces his alter ego to confront himself, his Jewish roots, and his craft. Divided in five sections, The Counterlife is a novel that jumps all over the place, at a breakneck pace, where the parts may be more interesting than a whole that is deliberately confusing and dissonant. The first section, “Basel”, for instance, deals with Henry’s funeral and is Roth at his best writing about human relationships. But don’t expect sentimentality. For Nathan is too sceptical, too introspective not to turn grief into material for self-analysis, and perhaps a novel. “This profession even fucks up grief,” he laments when he’s unable to write a simple eulogy for his brother’s funeral. Instead of pleasant childhood memories, he thinks only about the juicy secrets his brother confided in him. Already he sees a way of turning them into stuff for his fiction, “a continuation not of life but of his work or work-to-be.” Few writers are as honest about the insensitive demands of writing as Roth is.

But since Nathan’s main preoccupation is his craft, we can wonder to what extent the novel after Henry’s death isn’t just a product of his imagination. This is because the events in the novel aren’t clear but take Nathan into strange places, both physical and mental: first of all, in the second section, “Judea”, he narrates his journey to Israel, where Henry moved to after his bypass, seeking to be reconciled with his Jewish roots and where he becomes a follower of Lippman, a right-wing fanatic nationalist. Then, in the fourth section, “Gloucestershire”, Nathan imagines a new life where he dies of heart disease and Henry tries to forgive him, but fails because of all the resentment that he accumulated over the years, erupting instead into a tirade about Nathan’s indecent use of his personal life. In other words, Nathan (Roth) uses Henry to build up a very strong case against the vampire-like nature of his brother’s craft, namely the way he sucks life around him, hurting and embarrassing his family with his indiscretions and then invoking the sacredness of Art as a defence. Whether or not his novels are about his relatives, they think they are, and Nathan is too much of an asshole to care about the consequences. In a way, then, The Counterlife is an ars poetica, an explanation of Philip Roth’s approach to the art of the novel using the novel itself, and being unglamorously candid about it, which is one of the reasons I love him so much.

At the same time it’s a meta-textual novel with several levels of reality and layers between fact and fiction. It’s the novel where Roth takes his self-reflective games to their disjointed limit. Nathan Zuckerman is a Philip Roth alter ego who becomes famous after writing Carnovsky, a novel about his alter ego. But in The Counterlife Nathan also decides to insert himself in a new novel, whose draft is discussed in section four and may also be the novel we’re reading. If this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Roth builds nothing less than a sprawling labyrinth of words and different levels of fictionality. Now in a novel there’s no real and fictional, since even the ‘real’ bits are just figments of an authorial mind. The novel’s ‘real’ level, Henry seeking Nathan’s advice, is no less fictional than Nathan imagining his fictional funeral. They’re both the product of a writer called Philip Roth. However, it’s curious that after The Counterlife, Roth published his autobiography, The Facts (1988), as if he were saying, “No more games, this is who I am, really!”; and it’s no less curious that in his subsequent novels, Deception (1990) and Operation Shylock (1993), Roth writes himself into them as a character, as if after laying himself bare in his autobiography he again had to blur the line between his life and his fiction, and take it one step further than Nathan Zuckerman.

The Counterlife also resembles a previous novel, My Life as a Man (1974), one of Roth’s masterpieces. It’s Roth’s final word on castrating, neurotic, needy women. In it, Peter Tarnopol, a writer, deals with his marital demons by writing softer versions of his married life, contained in the first section, ironically called ‘Useful Fictions’. It’s only later that readers are introduced to Tarnopol’s true and horrifying marriage to the manic, manipulative Maureen, who in turn was based on one of Roth’s wives, a woman who made his life miserable before she died in a car crash. Few writers have used literature for therapeutic reasons as consistently and entertainingly as Roth. In both novels we have writers using literature to meditate upon their lives; but whereas in My Life as a Man there’s a clear line between what is ‘real’ and what is just made up by Tornapol, in this novel we can’t be so sure what is and isn’t Nathan’s fictions. For instance, in section four Maria, his English wife, finds a draft of his new novel, which bears many resemblances to The Counterlife: she goes as far as basically spoiling what happens in section five. But how can that be? If she’s real in section four, then Nathan is dead; but if he’s dead, and Henry is alive, then how did Nathan attend his brother’s funeral? If Nathan is alive, then section four is fiction and Maria is just a fictional character, or at least the Maria of that section is…

Thinking too much about will likely drive the reader insane. The novel, however, resists our attempt at reading it as a whole. Like I wrote before, in the second section Nathan travels to Israel, where his brother fled to after his bypass. Henry has abandoned his family, changed his name to Hanoch, started learning Hebrew and now fights for the survival of Israel. In his ancient Jewish roots he’s found a new meaning for his life. How does this square with the first section? It doesn’t, it’s never mentioned in it, which supports the theory that it’s just a figment of Nathan’s imagination, a new life he created for Henry where he finally leaves his big brother’s shadow and become part of something greater than his banal domestic life. However, if it’s a new life he imagined for his brother, it’s no less devoid of conflict. The two are again separated, by history this time: Henry is overwhelmed by Jewish culture and tradition; for Nathan, the descendant of emigrants, his culture is in Newark, New Jersey. “Tell me something,” Henry asks, “is it at all possible, at least outside of those books, for you to have a frame of reference slightly larger than the kitchen table in Newark?”   No, he can’t, because that’s where the source of his imagination resides. Although he tries to understand and admire Henry for his impassioned conversion, his instincts tell him to suspect history. History submerges the individual in rhetoric, culture and clichés, and the writer is by definition the man who seeks the individual, who can rescue him from the facelessness and anonymity of history. Nathan comes back home unable to reconcile with his brother, even in fiction, if this section is fiction.

But if the trilogy is about Nathan losing his family, The Counterlife also narrates his unsuccessful attempt at creating a new one – his relationship with Maria turns into a string of self-recriminations when, in section five, “Christendom”,  he discovers anti-Semitism in her British upper class family. And then there’s Jimmy, the awkward young writer who follows him around in devotion, wishing to be adopted by him, and who tries to hijack an airplane in order to promote his theory that Israel needs to forget the Holocaust in order to move on. As much as Nathan tries to downplay his Jewishness, history follows him around.

The Counterlife is a novel that lacks unity. I think it’s deliberate. Not being tied to a plot is the only way that allows Roth to tackle family relationships, Israeli politics, questions of history, culture and identity, and the art of the novel. Through the novel’s many levels of fiction and uses of ‘counterlifes’, of alternate lives, Roth weaves these threads without having to explain how they all tie together. It’s also an incomplete novel, like life, without many answers – in what circumstances does Henry die? What happens to Nathan’s marriage to Maria? What happens to Jimmy the terrorist? The Counterlife is a deeply unsatisfying novel for those who want answers, but in its incompleteness, in its games of artifice and identity, it’s a vivid reflection of fragmentary, true life, where nothing ever ends, but just continues and turns into something else.


  1. I agree the lack of unity in the Counter Life is intentional. It is also a bit disorientating as Nathan and his brother begin to experience similar but not identical events. At times while reading the novel I wondered if Zuckerman really had a brother at all and perhaps Henry was just some kind of altar ego.

    1. That would seriously compromise the previous trilogy and be even more maddening. But who knows? It's an interesting possibility.