Monday, February 23, 2009

The Counterlife by Philip Roth

Standing singly at the Wall, some rapidly swaying and rhythmically bobbing as they recited their prayers, others motionless but for the lightning flutter of their mouths, were seventeen of the world’s twelve million Jewish communing with the King of the Universe. To me it looked as though they were communing solely with the stones in whose crevices pigeons were roosting some twenty feet above their heads. I thought (as I am predisposed to think), “If there is a God who plays a role in our world, I will eat every hat in this town”

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be gripped by the sight of this rock-worship, exemplifying as it did to me the most awesomely retarded aspect of the human mind. Rock is just right, I thought: what on earth could be less responsive? Even the cloud drifting by overhead. . . appeared less indifferent to our encompassed and uncertain existence. I think that I would have felt less detached from seventeen Jews who openly admitted that they were talking to rock than from these seventeen who imagined themselves telexing the Creator directly; had I known for sure it was rock and rock alone that they knew they were addressing, I might even have joined in.

While reading The Counterlife, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace's overview of John Updike's career where he says, as Chris mentions in his review of Updike's The Centaur, that all of Updike's protagonists are just portraits of himself. While that may or may not be true (I haven't read any Updike yet, so I can't say), I think that criticism applies more fully to Philip Roth.

Anyone who is even passingly familiar with Roth's body of work knows that Nathan Zuckerman is Roth's avatar in his fictional universe. Roth has Portnoy's Complaint, Zuckerman, Carnovsky. Both make their living on Jewishness, dissecting and dwelling on it while at the same tie denying its effects on their lives. Both have trouble with marriage and family, both are obsessed with sex—it is fitting that The Counterlife showcases Roth and Zuckerman in equal measures.

Roth doesn't show up in person, as in some of hi other works. Rather, the author becomes a character through proxy as a result of the books semi-biographical content and its metafictional structure. Split up into five connected but non-sequential sections, The Counterlife is a literary puzzle disguised as a realistic novel, an experimental cipher with no ultimate solution. Roth himself becomes a character because, as the story goes on, it becomes clear that the author is the only character who truly exists. Characters die in one section and are resurrected in the next. In “Basel”, Henry Zuckerman, Nathan's younger brother, dies during a heart operation. In “Gloucestershire”, it's Nathan who's dead. In “Christendom”, Nathan is healthy and free; “Judea” and “Aloft” are the only two sections which seem to be chronologically connected, “Judea” ending with Nathan leaving Israel after visiting Henry who, now alive after dying in “Basel”, has become a radical Zionist, and ending with Nathan caught up in the middle of a hijacking.

If all this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but only until the conceit becomes clear. When read as standalone variations of the same basic plot, the search for a “Counterlife”, an alternate path, the structure makes sense. How else to have the same characters make different decisions? It is impossible that Zuckerman (both Henry and Nathan) die and live, but the strength of fiction is that nothing is truly impossible, that if a decision leads to arrest on a jet, well, we can start over again, back in England, no worse for wear.

Roth's Jewish fixation takes center stage, exhibiting both as Henry's radical Zionism and Nathan's response to it in “Judea/Aloft”, as Nathan's previously untapped wells of racial sensitivity in “Christendom”, and in the idea that Nathan (and Roth himself) still feels a deep-seated compulsion to defend his Jewishness, to stay in touch with a deep Zionist urge that Roth indicates lies at the bottom of all Jewish conflict. The Counterlife sometimes seems like a Roth apologia, his explanation for why a secular Jew who considers religion childish would spend his writing career sifting through through the strata some Semetic identity he can believe in.

No conclusion could hope to be completely satisfying, but then, what conclusions does The Counterlife actually draw? Roth uses the multiple narrative structure as a way to pull the ground out from under the reader, never letting us know what is real and what is not. While reading, I decided “Gloucestershire” had the best chance of being true, since it didn't seem invalidated in other parts of the work. Knowing now, however, that Nathan has appeared in later novels by Roth (and also that Zuckerman himself may be a construction of another fictional author of Roth's, forming a Russian doll writer's bloc), it seems most likely that nothing in the book is true at all. On the other hand, Roth takes great pains, both in the narrative itself and in interviews discussing the work, to point out that The Counterlife is only a story, regardless of the parallels to his own life, and in a story, anything can be true. In a sense, The Counterlife forces us to do that same thing its inhabitants do: to make a choice, any choice, even if we aren't sure it's the right one.


hamilcar barca said...

how would you rate The Counterlife compared to something like Portnoy's Complaint? i really tried to like PC when it first came out, then again a couple years ago. alas, i found it to be a letdown both times.

Christopher said...

Dude, I feel the same way. Really disappointing.

I'm willing to give him another try, though.

Nihil Novum said...

I haven't read PC. I intend to. I've recently finished Everyman, which I should be posting on in a day or so. The Counterlife is the only other Roth I've read.

I would say The Counterlife is worth reading for the meta elements, if you're into that sort of thing.