Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth

With Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth creates for himself an alter ego, conflating Roth’s own experience after having written Portnoy’s Complaint and that of the fictional Zuckerman’s after the publication of his sexually explicit and scandalous novel Carnovsky. In what Robert M. Greenberg describes as metanarrative, Zuckerman Unbound, the second of the Zuckerman novels, follows Zuckerman in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Carnovsky, the result of which is that Zuckerman, a previously dry, academic author has become a national celebrity at the height of the swinging sixties, with his sex life and affairs the subject of lurid (and mostly invented) press attention. He suffers, too, at the hands of the public – ‘they had mistaken impersonation for confession’ – and is routinely approached and addressed not as Zuckerman but as Carnovsky. It is clear that Zuckerman treats his new-found success with some ambivalence: it is proof that he has achieved his goal and cast aside the hang-ups of his parents’ generation and entered mainstream American society; and yet there is a superficiality to his life, to the easy celebrity and notoriety, with which he is clearly uncomfortable. It is not an easeful existence.

The novel follows two principal strands, one largely comic and the other tragic. Amongst the hangers-on and groupies who follow Zuckerman, he is engaged by the eccentric Alvin Pepler, a garrulous man from his own home town of Newark, whom Zuckerman treats initially with forbearance, then toleration and finally amusement. Pepler has a history of celebrity himself, as the disgraced participant in a fifties television quiz scam in which the results were fixed. Pepler is a genius of general knowledge and did not want or need to participate in the scam; his subsequent treatment, in which he was outed and shamed, has left him embittered. It gradually becomes clear, to both Zuckerman and us, that Pepler is not as innocent as he seems and a criminal subplot neatly unfolds. Pepler, then – effectively a double of Zuckerman himself – represents both the highs and the lows of celebrity life.

Meanwhile, Zuckerman’s father, a stern and upright man with unbending morals, is slowly dying. Through this, and through Zuckerman’s relations with his mother, we see some of the generational tension which subsisted between post-war Jewish parents and their children, young people like Nathan Zuckerman or Alex Portnoy, who wanted to be American first and Jewish second. As his father finally succumbs, Zuckerman does the right thing, flying to be by his bedside. There, he proceeds to lecture his father on evolution and the big bang and the fact that death will bring only nothingness. His father’s final, whispered comment to his ‘apostate son’, is not clear and Nathan debates various interpretations. Finally, in an explosive argument with his brother Henry, it is revealed to be ‘bastard’. Henry continues:

You killed him, Nathan. Nobody will tell you - they're too frightened of you to say it. They think you're too famous to criticize .... But you killed him .... With that book. Of course he said 'Bastard.’

In this way, Roth begins to examine the price one pays for independence, for pursuing one’s own goals. Zuckerman has known all along, of course, that his father would never approve of his scatological satire on Jewishness, but he went ahead and published it anyway. Success may follow endeavour, but guilt is not far behind, and the concomitant of guilt, for Roth, must always be defiance. And so the wheel begins to roll, guilt and defiance, guilt and defiance. Zuckerman has achieved his literary goals. He is a success in society. Through his fame he succeeds in bedding a world-famous actress, but the very next morning she leaves him for Fidel Castro. Such is the lunacy of the world of the celebrity. And the success? The novel which brought these rewards? It has broken his father, caused a rift in his family. To what end? The novel concludes with Zuckerman going back to his old family home and retracing the steps of his childhood, but the neighbourhood is completely changed, the Jewish families replaced by black ones. “Who are you supposed to be?” someone asks him. “No one,” he replies and walks away. He has played out ‘the first momentous encounter with caste and chance, with the mystery of a destiny’. He tells himself: ‘You are no longer any man’s son. You are no longer some good woman’s husband. You are no longer your brother’s brother. And you don’t come from anywhere, any more, either.’ One suspects that Nathan Zuckerman’s uneasy passage through life will continue.

Zuckerman Unbound is, in typical Roth fashion, artfully artless. The interplay of the two plot strands works curiously, and the shift from the comic Pepler story to the extreme tension of the deathbed scene could have been bathetic, but works beautifully. This is what life is: it is not neatly ordered and predictably progressive in the way of a JM Coetzee novel. Life is not art. A. Alvarez calls Roth’s approach to plot ‘cavalier’ but that is to miss the point: that is to conflate medium and message in just the sort of way that Roth warns against in his Roth/Zuckerman and Zuckerman/Carnovsky confusions. Zuckerman Unbound gives us a character in search of happiness. As are all of us.

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