Philip Roth: The Anatomy Lesson

I know I said I was going to wait to read this book in an effort to prolong the pleasure I’m getting out of Roth’s Zuckerman books. But hey, there are still two more Zuckerman books to go after this one, let alone the books where Roth uses Zuckerman as a type of narrator rather than subject. I have more pleasure in store! The Anatomy Lesson (1983) follows The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound (my reviews here and here) and I really wondered (with great anticipation) where Roth could go next. After all, these books are not simply books about the times and trials of a successful author. They are metafiction at its best, and how many different ways can one author using one character approach the art of writing? Plenty, apparently (and thankfully). The Anatomy Lesson is even more metafictional than the previous two novels, which were less concerned with the actual writing process than with the artist’s development and isolation.

Here, Roth again enters the literary “hall of mirrors,” writing about Zuckerman (who both is and isn’t Roth) who is writing about Carnovsky (who both is and isn’t Zuckerman). And of course, though Roth has put himself on display, he playfully eludes biography. What we get instead is perhaps even more impressive: both a serious and comical look at art and its relationship to the artist, for better or for worse. Where the two preceeding novels were more or less straightforward in their approach to art and the artist, in The Anatomy Lesson Roth has pulled out all of the stops, twisting and turning those mirrors under all kinds of light to present a virtuosic show unlike any I’ve ever seen before. What really makes me make such a bold statement is the fact that throughout the book Roth maintains all of this complexity yet his prose is as limpid as can be.

The story picks up with Zuckerman just having turned forty, he’s in a lot of pain — “a hot line of pain that ran forward behind his right ear into his neck, then branched downward beneath the scapula like a menorah held bottom side up” — and for the past several months he’s been looking for some relief. In another excellent opening line, Roth encapsulates much of what is to come: Zuckerman’s relationship with his mother, who is soon “gone,” and his relationship to the other women.

When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she’s not around, other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women.

Though these women do their best to assist Zuckerman, the pain is practically unbearable. The only time he is even slightly comfortable is when he is lying on his playmat (the locale for quite a bit of Rothian word play). To make matters worse, Zuckerman cannot no longer write. Sure, part of the problem is the pain the physical act of writing creates, but Zuckerman can’t even come up with anything to write about because the pain consumes him. Oh, and to make matters even more worse, he’s going bald.

. . . vocationally obstructed, physically disabled, sexually mindless, intellectually intert, spiritually depressed — but not bald overnight, not that too.

At its roots, The Anatomy Lesson is about this pain, which is both real and metaphoric. No physician has successfully diagnosed the pain; none has given Zuckerman any relief. The only relief Zuckerman can find is by varying doses of vodka, Percodan, and marijuana. Having so much pain for so long begs the question: what is the real source of this pain? Because Zuckerman is always trying to capture his experience, he comes up with many plausible sources. First and foremost:

Zuckerman was taking “pain” back to its root in poena, the Latin word for punishment: poena for the family portrait the whole country had assumed to be his, for the tastelessness that had affronted millions and the shamelessness that had enraged his tribe.

Early in the novel, Zuckerman’s mother dies. At the funeral Zuckerman’s brother, a dentist, gives a seventeen-page eulogy (more than Zuckerman has composed in months), and the eulogy achieves its effect, serving to set the record straight about the mother and Carnovsky’s mother and to sever the brothers’ relationship for good. Zuckerman sardonically thinks that his purpose in writing is now complete: he’s murdered his parents and become estranged from his brother — emancipation! Though on the surface Zuckerman speaks with mostly this type of derision, Roth won’t let his character be so quickly derided by readers. Roth complicates things, and makes the book so much more worthy to read, by allowing Zuckerman to show that underneath it all, he’s still lonely and scared and completely empty. Despite all of the “outward trappings of pleasure” all that results is pleasure’s opposite. And you’d think all of these mixed emotions would be a great place for a writer to find new material, but no, so far nothing — only the temptation to end it all . . . or come close to it:

On the other hand, a failed suicide that didn’t completely cripple him might provide a new subject — more than could be said so far for success. But what if the pain vanished halfway down, went the way it came, leaped from his body as he sailed from the roof — what then? What if he saw in every salient detail a next book, a new start? Halfway down is probably just where that happens.

But the real pleasure in this book is the metafiction, this pain as an analogue to writing, Zuckerman’s physical decline and mental anguish (at least from the outside perspective) as an analogue to the irony of passing the threshold to becoming an artist:

If you were to watch some certified madman groaning over a table in his little cell, observe him trying to make something sensible out of qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl, and zxcvbnm, see him engrossed to the exclusion of all else by three such nonsensical words, you’d be appalled, you’d clutch his keeper’s arm and ask, “Is there nothing to be done? No anti-hallucinogen? No surgical procedure?” But before the keeper could even reply, “Nothing — it’s hopeless,” the lunatic would be up on his feet, out of his mind, and shrieking at you through the bars: “Stop this infernal interference! Stop this shouting in my ears! How do I complete my life’s great work with all these gaping visitors and their noise!”

And in The Anatomy Lesson, we readers get to reap the rewards of Zuckerman’s pain and isolation (or Roth’s).

From what I’ve said above, the following might come as a shock: I did not enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed The Ghost Writer or Zuckerman Unbound. The sheer pleasure of Roth’s writing was still there, but some of the feel of the previous novels was missing for me. I enjoyed, for example, the isolated setting and its meanings in The Ghost Writer. And even though what Zuckerman does with Amy Bellette’s past is not nearly as subtle a venue for metafiction as the body is in The Anatomy Lesson, I still think I enjoyed Zuckerman’s subversive exploitation of a completely unknowing Bellette more. As for my feelings for The Anatomy Lesson compared to Zuckerman Unbound, Alvin Peppler doesn’t make an appearance in The Anatomy Lesson. Happily, in The Anatomy Lesson we still have the pleasure of experiencing one of Roth’s energetic rants. This one comes from a progressingly drunk and drugged Zuckerman roaming around Chicago adopting the name of his hated critic Milton Appel. It gets better: he pretends to be Milton Appel, the grittiest of pornographers. In some classic ribaldry, Zuckerman/Appel become verbally incontinent for some pages, and that makes him feel a little better. But for some reason, even this did not match the fantastic rants and comedy of Alvin Peppler. I think it is because a ribald rant is easier to create (at least, they are far more common) than a self-pitying, Zuckerman-hating, importunate rant from the Alvin Peppler.

But that does not mean I wish Roth had quit with just the two previous novels. You’ll notice that my gripes with the novel are much more my own personal tastes and not to be mistaken as gripes about Roth’s style or tone here. He’s still spot on. In fact, this lesson in pain and anatomy goes deeper than the previous two about what it costs an individual to create through writing. I have The Prague Orgy sitting on my shelf . . . and I don’t know how long I can abstain!

I think another element that, while enjoyable, made this book less pleasurable than the previous two was the ending, which I’d like to address briefly here as an afterthought — spoiler alert! As much as I enjoyed it, it was not quite as ambiguous as the other two. In The Ghost Writer we get an excellent, pathetic scene in which Mrs. Lonoff walks alone down the wintry street while Zuckerman and Lonoff discuss the car’s problems. In Zuckerman Unbound we get the father’s death and Henry’s separation. We get a sense that it is a bitter relief for Zuckerman who then roams around the changed streets of Newark. But that didn’t happen here. The Anatomy Lesson ends with irony (which is to be expected) but it left me less with a sense of ambiguity about the calling of “writer.” In fact, it seemed to end with a judgment against Zuckerman. Here he is, a patient in the hospital going around seemingly concerned with the other patients. But he is actually collecting, with boyish excitement, material and “setting himself apart,” failing to accept that his perceived distance is not real, that he is one of the subjects, and that these people are indeed real. It seemed to cast him in a much poorer light than the previous novels which had also recognized this state of being as a legitimate price to pay to create.

Even though I enjoyed the other two novels more, though, this is a great ending. Zuckerman, we know, goes on. I cannot wait to find out what he does next!

3 thoughts on “Philip Roth: The Anatomy Lesson

  1. John Self says:

    Just get on with it, I say! The Prague Orgy is only 90 pages or so, but it’s an absolutely terrific coda to the three earlier Zuckermans. I look forward to reading your thoughts on it in due course, Trevor.

  2. All right! All right! I’m just finishing up a Graham Greene novel, and The Prague Orgy is quickly moving up in line!

  3. Trevor says:

    A bit of a treasure: click here for an image of Philip Roth’s edits on the galley proof of The Anatomy Lesson, from Mark Sarvas’s blog.

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