The story, on the surface, is quite simple. In the late 1970s two American brothers, dentist Henry Zuckerman and writer Nathan Zuckerman, are in the prime of their lives. Then Henry starts having heart trouble. The medicine that controls the condition leaves him impotent, while the alternative is a risky heart operation. But Philip Roth’s latest novel, The Counterlife, is rarely about surfaces. Soon,
Roth begins to complicate things, as the two Zuckermans grapple with the issues currently confronting agnostic American Jews. The result is an original and stimulating book, told at a crackling pace, elegantly written, full of surprises and very funny.
The first surprise is that The ' Counterlife is not really concerned with character. There are no scenes set up to reveal character. Nor does the reader know very much about the principal figures at the end. What Roth gives instead is argument—debates that extend through the five different sections of the book: Basel, Judea, Aloft, Gloucestershire and Christendom. Each section is a variation of the basic story of life-threatening disease and issues in contemporary Judaism. Each involves the two brothers in different ways. In one section,
Henry suffers the heart attack; in another, Nathan is the victim. And each section poses separate problems, involving sexual relations, the search for identity, conflicting loyalties and the past.
In the most serious confrontation, in Judea, Henry decides to leave America, his dental office, his wife and children and his mistresses in order to live on a kibbutz on the bleak landscape of Judea. Nathan flies to Israel to see if he can persuade his brother to return. As the two trade arguments pitting Zionism against the American way of life, it becomes clear that Roth is really writing about Nathan’s arguments with himself.
And each argument is convincing: Roth is a much larger and more serious writer than some of his earlier books suggested. He can now make
persuasive an argument opposed to the one he obviously supports—the first clue to the book’s larger themes. As the novel develops, so does its complexity. It becomes theatre, its five sections really stages, its main characters actors, playing different roles.
The Counterlife is also one of the best books to portray the unbelieving North American Jew. Nathan (married several times, always to non-Jewish women and currently interested in another one from England) must confront different challenges in his life than did his grandfather or even his father. Attending carol service at a church in London’s West End, he thinks: “It never fails. I am never more of a Jew than I am in a church when the organ begins. I may be estranged at the Wailing Wall but without being a stranger—I stand outside but not shut out, and even the most ludicrous or hopeless encounter serves to gauge, rather than to sever, my affiliation with people I couldn’t be less like.”
But between Nathan and the church,
there is a natural incompatibility. He feels like a spy in the adversary’s camp. “I’m not repelled by Christians at prayer,” he says. “I just find the religion foreign in the most far-reaching ways ... and never more so than when the congregants are observing the highest standards of liturgical decorum and the cleric most beautifully enunciating the doctrine of love.” Then, about two-thirds of the way through the novel Roth reveals that all of the stories are versions of a book that Nathan is writing. What The Counterlife is really all about is what a writer can do, and does, with his life, his family, his friends and the human situations he finds himself in—and how, by turning them into fiction, he gets still more out of the life that he has lived. The resulting drafts not only thicken life but, by implication, show those who do not write books that they can do something similar with their lives: through conversation, argument and fantasy. If life were too simple, Roth argues, it would not deserve to be lived.
Technically, The Counter-life is very sophisticated. Revealing too much of the plot would rob readers of the pleasure they will get when it finally becomes apparent. But much of what 2 has happened eventually falls • into place, even though the first I version of events was entirely convincing the way it was presented. And that, of course, reinforces Roth’s point about the purpose of literature.
The only time Roth fumbles is in the opening part of the last section, Christendom. There, examining the life and prejudice of the English upper class, he serves up clichés. In an exclusive restaurant in the English countryside, Nathan Zuckerman is dining with his English girlfriend when, from a nearby table, a dowager tells her husband, “There’s a terrible smell in here.” That sort of thing disappoints, because Roth usually has a good social eye. But he recovers quickly. And the book ends with another argument, convincing and poignant, about why books, especially autobiographical fiction, are so necessary.
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