The Counterlife

I’ve recently decided to read more fiction of the Great Books genre. To try to make some of their Greatness last, I decided to write a diary entry after each book I finished. Not much one for privacy, I figured I’d post these (disjointed and amateurish) thoughts on StoneSoup. Hopefully they’ll  either be of passing interest or easily escaped.

I just finished reading Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, a book I liked but didn’t love, appreciating it more with my writerly head than my readerly heart. I say writerly head because the book is largely about the idea of narrative and story. In it Philip Roth’s counter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman goes through a series of linked stories which each somehow call attention to the artificiality of the previous chapter. Like Roth’s later novel, Operation Shylock, it s a novel about writerly selves (Israel also figures big in both novels) and can best be described with the phrase “Super Meta.”

Some bulleted thoughts after the jump

  •  Right before reading this book, I watched this story told by Jonathan Franzen for the Moth. It’s an excellent story in its own right, but particularly interesting in the context of The Counterlife. Both pieces (spoiler alert) are about the moral consequences of a writer’s telling a story. In the Franzen story, which you really should watch before I continue to spoil it further, the author finds that in telling a story from his own life, he painfully robs another participant in the story of her own experience. That is, he takes the story of her son (who co-stars with Franzen) and makes it his own. By telling it with his own emphasis and in his own voice, Franzen grants the experience a meaning, his own, and this robs the mother of her own interpretation of the story. Just like my writing “spoiler alert” doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for spoiling the story (you did, after all, keep reading, didn’t you?) Franzen’s factual accuracy and essential decency does not exhaust his writer’s culpability to his classmate’s mother.
  • In the Counterlife (some spoilers here also), Roth shows that a writer plunders his own memories like a thief (to use his phrasing, couldn’t find the quote). Accurate memoir in Franzen is bad enough, but fiction for Roth is worse, because it takes the essential nature of someone in the author’s life, a brother, a wife, an in-law, and twists it into something fictional. The resulting characters or situations are unreal and grotesque to the real life on which they’re based. Each character or story is a chimera drawn with features essentially recognizable from whatever sources the author could lay his hands on. This unreality renders the theft of experiences all the more painful: the fiction is in some respects recognizably real (Zuckerman so clearly similar to Roth, Zuckerman’s English wife perhaps something of a funhouse mirror portrayal of Roth’s own, English, wife), so the unreal facts stapled onto the source’s real-life experience themselves take ownership and supersede the life of the human being. Roth, I mean, Zuckerman, makes the character of Zuckerman’s brother far more vivid than the impression we would receive upon meeting the real man himself. What’s more, Zuckerman affixes onto his brother the writer’s own dramas, problems and neuroses, infecting the character with pitiable frailties that the real analogue would find repugnant.
  • The Counterlife is also a novel about escapes and alternate lives that a person could choose. In the opening chapter, Zuckerman’s staid dentist brother is beset by heart disease, the pharmaceutical cure to which renders him sexually impotent. Having been invigorated by his affair with his dental assistant, he decides to undergo a dangerous bypass operation to restore his flagging vitality (one of the emotions I felt most strongly in reading this novel was gratitude for the existence of Viagra). This decision, to set off into the unknown, informs the rest of the book. Characters continually leave their own life (by divorce, by pilgrimages to Israel or England), to venture out into a counterlife of their choosing. Are these escapes  courageous or childish? Roth is unsure, but whatever advantages the counterlife may have, they leave the character fundamentally the same person as before. Zuckerman says of one of the characters in the book: “I tried repeatedly while I was with him to invest this escape he’d made from his life’s narrow boundaries with some heightened meaning, but in the end he had seemed to me, despite his determination to be something new, just as naive and uninteresting as he’d always been.” “If [he] was ever going to turn out to be interesting, I was going to have to do it.” These words are repeated later in the novel to cruelly devastating effect.
  • Roth also, as usual, wrestles with the question of Jewish identity, a story and experience imposed on him by others. He desires to be Jewish by being himself, fettered by neither Zionism nor anti-Semitism. He does not get his wish. Other characters wish to reinvent themselves through use of different Jewish stories — by becoming West Bank settlers or terrorist highjackers, but the desire to embed oneself in one narrative rather than another is an act of individual will (Alasdair Macintyre fans, take note). The Israeli settler might be no more Jewish than the New Jersey dentist, but is the dentist himself any more honest a face than the settler? Roth ultimately does not seem to think so.
  • You may notice that the interlocking themes of the novel are quite intricately crafted, and Roth explicates his ideas eloquently. There is truly much to admire in the Counterlife and when I describe the book by its ideas, I regret not enjoying it more. In fact, for all of Roth’s prodigious eloquence, his latter work in particular has generally left me rather cool.  The books I’m thinking of now are Operation Shylock, the Counterlife, and American Pastoral. Interestingly, from skimming the wikipedia summary of Roth’s second wife’s memoir (he treated her quite badly before they divorced), it seems that he regarded Operation Shylock as his masterpiece when it was written, a fact I find surprising. I haven’t read the book in a while, but Shylock, even more than the Counterlife, is full of metafictional flourishes and critiques of Israel and Jewish identity. It has more animal momentum than the Counterlife (which is a book that can move rather slowly), but like that book, I imagine it has few if any moments that could bring a tear to a reader’s eye. American Pastoral may seem the opposite, but I feel like I am reacting (comparatively) negatively to it for the same reason as I failed to fall in love with Shylock or Counterlife: it’s a book about themes and ideas (in American Pastoral, the impact of the 60s on the American culture) rather than emotions and characters. Now, Roth is a brilliant writer; his characters are fascinating and true-to-life, but I think that, those three books, for me, can be a bit too intellectual for me to give them the appreciation they deserve.
  • Even for a self-indulgent post, such as this, I’m really pushing the limits of space and attention, but one final detail I’ll mention. As I said above, I read this book after watching this Franzen oral story. I also read this book after reading (and loving) Franzen’s Freedom. My feelings towards Franzen at the moment are less man-crush than psychopathic obsession (I count the Corrections as well one of my favorite books and will next read Franzen’s brief memoir – The Discomfort Zone). I recently watched this longish speech Franzen gave, one part of which is about how to talk about a writer’s influences, a question he finds overemphasized by the Harold Bloomian school of thought. One (fairly trite) thought that struck me in writing this entry was that Franzen doesn’t just influence me as a writer but also as a reader as well. It’s impossible for me to read the Counterlife after Freedom and not be influenced by Franzen’s book, which is titanically different from Roth, being less precise and more exhausting, less intellectually intricate and more emotionally overwhelming.  Just like being in one relationship primes you for how to treat the next, one book can leave a deep impression on the gaze with which you view the next.
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One thought on “The Counterlife

  1. Pingback: The Discomfort Zone | stone soup

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