by Philip Roth (1981)
While reading Zuckerman Unbound, Roth’s sequel to the delightful (that’s only partially the right word) The Ghost Writer, I discovered something unexpected about myself. When I’m reading these books I must look as giddy as a teenage girl (and their moms) reading Twilight. My thrill is not some suave vampire, but fantastic sentences, incredible timing, and stunning depth!
In Zuckerman Unbound we meet Nathan Zuckerman in his thirties. Though his writing has been successful already, he just published his major work that launched him into stardom: Carnovsky. Now rich, famous, the subject of gossip columns, and well recognized as a literary genius, he must deal with the downside of his dream while transitioning into celebrity life. On the surface, that is what this book is about: being famous.
But what Roth has accomplished is so much more, delving deeply into the other elements in the life of a man who has achieved all he wanted but who is beginning to take the measure of the costs. Some of the costs are comical: “What the hell are you doing on a bus, with your dough?” (the first line in the novel). Others are disturbing, like his hilarious encounter with the Alvin Pepler, an incredibly amusing quasi-Herb Stempel, the guy who took the dive in the quiz show scandals. We are fortunate to have two extended discussions between Zuckerman and Pepler! Pepler, still furious that he, the obvious genius, took a fall and now has nothing to show for it, is trying to write a book about his life. Zuckerman, in a way, since both are from Newark and are Jewish, has written that book with Carnovsky. But these encounters and others are increasingly disturbing and potentially threatening:
Zuckerman the stupendous sublimator spawning Zuckermaniacs! A book, a piece of fiction bound between two covers, breeding living fiction exempt from all the subjugations of the page, breeding fiction unwritten, unreadable, unaccountable and uncontainable, instead of doing what Aristotle promised from art in Humanities 2 and offering moral perceptions to supply us with the knowledge of what is good or bad. . . . If only he could understand that it is the writers who are supposed to move the readers to pity and fear, not the other way around!
In the midst of this, Zuckerman encounters unwelcome feelings — is it potential regret about what this fame has cost his relationship with his family? He has already been divorced three times. From The Ghost Writer we know that his relationship with his family is strained because of his artistic subjects which they think are exploitative and case not only the family but the Jewish people in a negative light, a difficult thing for them to stomach so soon after the Holocaust. And now, to make matters worse, people think Zuckerman’s mother is Carnovsky’s mother. However, what Zuckerman feels is not exactly regret — not yet, at least. Here Zuckerman is analyzing whether he should feel regret. And everyone telling him he should be more repentent serves only to show him that he shouldn’t. That’s exactly the type of thing he’s trying to get away from. This along with the occasional maniac on the street cause Zuckerman to consider withdrawing from society:
First you lock yourself away in order to stir up your imagination, now you lock yourself away because you’ve stirred up theirs.
I only wish I could adequately convey what this book contains. It is not a simple “perils of fame and fortune” story. It is much more nuanced than that, thankfully. And on the side, Roth allows examination of other elements. For example, the book contains some hard glances at Newark, where both Roth and Zuckerman (and Pepler!) grew up, a city visibly declining in the 1960s. Zuckerman has moved to New York City, but his stories, like Carnovsky, take place in a pre-war Newark that no longer exists, and this has led to the implication that he has exploited it like he exploited his family.
Newark is finished, idiot! Newark is barbarian hordes and the Fall of Rome!
I have put off reading the next book in the series, The Anatomy Lesson, just in an attempt to prolong the joy.
For those who have finished the book, some final thoughts:
Having your father’s last word — “bastard” — be directed at you must be difficult (and comical — I loved all the theories about what else it was he might have said “better,” “batter,” “faster”). But I really like how Roth does not allow the reader to fully sympathize with Zuckerman or with his father. In a way, the decline of Zuckerman’s relationship with his family is tragic, a higher cost to pay for art (and fame) than I am willing to pay, but my family isn’t the same as Zuckerman’s. I could easily see Zuckerman’s perspective. He’s cut the ties that have held him back. The reaction by his father has only strained things more given Zuckerman even more grounds for separation.
However, Zuckerman’s brother Henry has some painful insights into the matter, and sets himself as a great counter to Zuckerman’s emancipated state. Henry is in a marriage in which he feels obligated to stay. He has always sought to please others, including their father. Yet even now Henry is having an affair. Is it noble of Henry to keep up the façade? To let sleeping dogs lie just because it might be unpleasant to disclose the truth? To me, neither Zuckerman nor Henry are saintly. Neither of them have the answer.