Philip Roth: The Counterlife

After I read American Pastoral I realized that if I planned on reading all of Roth’s “Zuckerman” books in order, I’d already failed, having skipped The Counterlife (1986). Oh well. It actually doesn’t throw anything off at all. There’s little continuity between The Counterlife and the previous Zuckerman book, The Prague Orgy, and there also was no great hole between The Counterlife and American Pastoral. However, I still like the idea of watching Zuckerman age, so before moving on to I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, and Exit Ghost, I figured I’d better step back to the first Zuckerman book to win one of the U.S.’s major literary awards, taking the National Book Critics Circle for Fiction in 1987.

So all of the Zuckerman books are experiments in the metaphysical. Nathan Zuckerman is known to take liberty when narrating the lives of his friends and family, leading to some incredible, extended passages where he imagines their life for them: in The Ghost Writer we have his amazing extended alternate life for Amy Bellette; in American Pastoral he fills in the large gaps of the Swede’s life with his own version of what happened, to devastating effect.

The Counterlife is along the same idea and yet it is very different. Where the two works I mentioned above still have the feel of a realistic novel, The Counterlife plays with all sorts of metaphysical and metafictional conceits with more post-modernist flare that . . . well, let me try to give a brief look at the novel without giving it away.

The book is broken into five sections: “Basel,” “Judea,” “Aloft,” “Gloucestershire,” and “Christendom.” In the first, we find out that Nathan’s brother Henry has died during surgery he hoped would enable him to stop taking medication that was making him impotent. But with Roth a lot of the fun is not just in the story — it’s in the writing. Here is a great example of a sentence that flows smoothly despite the complexities, a sentence that pushes us one direction, subverts our expectation, and then takes us to a final word that casts the beginning words in a different light:

They experimented for six months, first with the dosage and, when that didn’t work, with other brands of the drug, but nothing helped: he no longer awakened with his morning erection or had sufficient potency for intercourse with his wife, Carol, or with his assistant, Wendy, who was sure that it was she, and not the medication, that was responsible for this startling change.

Zuckerman attends Henry’s funeral, and in a passage between him and Henry’s wife, Carol, we get a flavor for how this book is going to shift our perspective many times, making the true life not just elusive but down right impossible to determine.

But in Zuckerman’s arms, pressing herself up against his chest, all she said, in a breaking voice, was “It helped me enormously, your being here.”

Consequently he had no reason to reply, “So that’s why you made up that story,” but said nothing more than what was called for. “It helped me, being with you all.”

Carol did not then respond, “Of course that’s why I said what I did. Those bitches all weeping their hearts out — sitting there weeping for their man. The hell with that!” Instead she said to him, “It meant a lot to the children to see you. They needed you today. You were lovely to Ruth.”

Nathan did not ask, “And you let him go ahead with the surgery, knowing who it was for?” He said, “Ruth’s a terrific girl.”

In the second section, Henry is resurrected by Zuckerman’s pen. After surviving the surgery, however, Henry gets a strong urge to completely change his life to give it meaning. This secular Jew from South Orange, New Jersey, decides to move to the Holy Land, the West Bank to be exact, in order to join a group of Jewish fundamentalists seeking to overpower the Arabs. Again, we get multiple perspectives here. Here is one from a secular Jew living in Jerusalem:

“Who comes to this country now to settle and live? The intellectual Jew? The humane Jew? The beautiful Jew? No, not the Jew from Buenos Aires, or Rio, or Manhattan. The ones who come from America are either religious or crazy or both. This place has become the American-Jewish Australia. Now who we get is the Oriental jew and the Russian Jew and the social misfits like your brother, roughnecks in yarmulkes from Brooklyn.”

And here is one from one of the Jews in Henry’s (or Hanoch, for he’s also adopted a new name with his new life) settlement:

“But assimilation and intermarriage,” she said, turning quite grave, “in America they are bringing about a second Holocaust — truly, a spiritual Holocaust is taking place there, and it is as deadly as any threat posed by the Arabs to the State of Israel. . . .”

And amazingly, there’s are still several more turns of perspective. In the sections that follow we have Zuckerman imagine his own death while his mistress Maria and his still-alive brother make us question the veracity of the prior sections while providing a nice introduction to the final section — or conjuration — “Christendom.”

Unlike many contemporary works, when Roth pulls these literary tricks he does so for a deeper purpose. As in Indignation, a primary theme is escaping history, both the large-scale events that overtake us regardless of our own will and the individual stories we create for ourselves to get through it all.

All of this makes The Counterlife much more complex and dense than the other Zuckerman books I’ve read. That doesn’t mean it was better, but it definitely satisfied me.

And here is a great line that describes a bit of where Roth has been with his work and a lot about where he is going:

The treacherous imagination is everybody’s maker — we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s authors.

3 thoughts on “Philip Roth: The Counterlife

  1. John Self says:

    I’m skimming over this review, Trevor – no offence! – because I want to approach the book fresh myself. (Though I know you won’t have revealed any spoilers or the like.) I do know that several reliable sources have considered it Roth’s best work. And that’s saying something, as we both know!

  2. I’ll just say, then, that I recommend it. And I usually just skim reviews of pieces that I’m particularly excited to read too. No sense in letting what they got out of it to influence what I get out of it – until after!

Leave a Reply