The Counterlife Essay - Critical Essays

Philip Roth

Critical Context

Honored with a National Book Critics Circle Award, The Counterlife, Roth’s thirteenth book of fiction, continues and further complicates the story of the author’s most extensively portrayed and ambiguously angled alter ego. Nathan Zuckerman first appears as the main character in two stories by Peter Tarnopol, the main character in Roth’s My Life as a Man (1974); Tarnopol writes the stories as a form of therapy following a disastrous marriage clearly modeled on Roth’s own. From the role of protagonist in stories within a story, Nathan becomes a hero in his own right in The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), and The Anatomy Lesson (1983). The publication of all three Zuckerman novels in a single volume punningly titled Zuckerman Bound (1985), however, seemed to indicate that Roth was done with Zuckerman.

The Counterlife shows that he was not, shows that Zuckerman the sexually insatiable (as many of his readers believe him to be) is also Zuckerman the narratively indestructible and inexhaustible. The entire Zuckerman saga deals in fictional form with many of the same issues Roth felt compelled to address following the negative remarks made chiefly by Jewish readers and critics about Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and more especially Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), books that Roth rightly claimed were neither anti-Semitic nor unambiguously autobiographical except to the most literal-minded readers. Roth’s most direct responses to their charges are to be found in Reading Myself and Others (1975) and in the numerous interviews he has, often warily, given. In Zuckerman, Roth has found a way to deal with these same issues in a more imaginatively complex way, turning ad hominem misreadings to narrative advantage. Zuckerman figures importantly in The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988), more briefly in the novel Deception (1990), and more briefly still in Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993). In all these works, The Counterlife in particular, questions of simple autobiographical identity and equivalence dissolve in Roth’s dizzying and provocative brand of performance art, his seemingly endless variations on the theme of metamorphosis.