Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Counterlife continues the saga of Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who has appeared in a number of the author’s books over a two-decade period. The Counterlife is a highly speculative and highly playful work in the form of a novel in progress about the possibilities and hazards of fiction writing.
Asked why she enjoys Jane Austen’s work so much, one of Roth’s characters, a very proper Englishwoman, replies, “She simply records life truthfully, and what she has to say about life is very profound. She amuses me so much. The characters are so good.” In describing what Austen’s fiction is, Mrs. Freshfield unknowingly also describes what The Counterlife is not, at least not in any way that Mrs. Freshfield could ever understand. As comic as it is complex, The Counterlife consists of five narratives that, while interrelated, are not linearly developed in any conventional sense, are not resolved, either individually or together, and are often at odds with one another.
“Basel” begins with what the reader only later learns is a eulogy, written but because of its inappropriateness never delivered, by forty-four-year-old Nathan Zuckerman on the occasion of his brother Henry’s death at age thirty-nine. That discovery is just the first in a bewildering series of surprises in a novel of unexpected reversals that derive—or seem to derive—from Nathan’s efforts to understand his brother’s...
(The entire section is 1235 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In The Counterlife, Roth more forthrightly and ingeniously than ever before exploits the technique of developing alternative versions of one’s fate. Thus, in the first section, “Basel,” Henry Zuckerman, a successful dentist, husband, and father of three children, suffers from a serious heart ailment that is properly treated by use of a beta-blocker, which renders him impotent. Finding his sex life reduced to nothing and desperate to resume an extramarital affair with his dental assistant, he decides to undergo surgery, and dies. Before the surgery, feeling the need to talk to someone, he confides in his brother, Nathan, from whom he has been long estranged. At Henry’s funeral, however, Nathan is unable to deliver the eulogy, as the three thousand words he has written are hardly suitable for the occasion. Always the novelist, he knows that they are more suitable to his craft than for his brother’s funeral.
In the next section, “Judea,” Henry has not died but is alive and well and living in Israel. The surgery, while successful, left him deeply depressed, and he experiences a kind of ethnic conversion during a visit to the Orthodox quarter in Jerusalem. His wife asks Nathan, now married to an Englishwoman, Maria, and living in London, to find Henry and try to get him to come home to his family. More interested in what has happened to his brother than in actually returning him to New Jersey, Nathan agrees. He finds Henry in a kibbutz...
(The entire section is 663 words.)