Few novelists have been as thoroughly identified with their fictional alter egos as Philip Roth has been with his; even fewer have spent so much time and energy objecting to their readers’ tendency to make such identifications. For more than twenty years, in essays and interviews by turns witty and testy, eloquent and blunt, Roth has tried to convince his readers and critics of the importance of acknowledging the fundamental distinction between facts and fictions, imagined and genuine autobiographies, his characters and his own character. Since the late 1970’s, the complexities of the relationship between writers and their readers, the various ways that the life a writer lives becomes the lives he invents, has become a central part of his novels themselves.
The trilogy and epilogue that he collected in Zuckerman Bound (1985)—The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), and The Prague Orgy (1985)—explore these subjects by tracing the unintended consequences of his art on the life and career of the writer Nathan Zuckerman. Their collection into a single volume with a catchy and conclusive title seemed to say that Roth had completed his exploration of these issues, had closed the book, so to speak, on both Zuckerman and the subjects this alter ego had permitted him to examine. Two years later, then, when Zuckerman reappeared in The Counterlije(1987), more than one reviewer cried foul. In spite of its pyrotechnical style—its starts and stops, abrupt shifts in direction, doubling and redoubling of characters and events—to Roth’s detractors The Counterltfe seemed like leftovers from a series that had supposedly come to a close. When Zuckerman turned up once again in The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988), some reviewers seemed to take it as a personal affront, and even sympathetic critics tended to treat the book as both premature and a digresslon.
The Counterltfe, however, is certainly one of Roth’s most carefully wrought and powerful novels—an achievement fully deserving of its selection for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. And The Facts, by providing Roth’s version of some of the events behind his novels, offers fascinating insights into both its author and the process by which he has transformed his experiences into art. With the publication ofDeception both appear even more interesting, for this novel makes it clear that since Zuckerman Bound Roth has been writing another series of connected works.
Examining the relationship between a writer’s real and imagined lives remains a constant in all of Roth’s books since The Ghost Writer—aswell as in earlier works such as The Breast (1972), My Ltfr as a Man(1974), and The Professor of Desire (1977). But where the works inZuckerman Bound treated this relationship as a subject, in the books since he has also explored it through his form. Roth is often cited as a “traditional” novelist—linked to Saul Bellow or John Updike, contrasted with John Barth or Robert Coover. The distinction is not without merit. Like Bellow or Updike, Roth has continued the nineteenth century tradition of the novel as a means of treating the interaction between individuals and their particular society, and has grounded his major fiction in realistic character and plot, dialogue and description. From the beginning of his career, however, Roth has also been highly conscious of the possibilities of formal experiment.
In his college stories and the stories collected in Goodbye, Columbus(1959) he worked his way through the styles of J. D. Salinger, Irwin Shaw, Isaac Bashevis Singer and others, before finding his own voice in “Defender of the Faith,” “Eli, the Fanatic,” and Goodbye, Columbus itself. In Letting Go (1962) he experimented with a style that combined Henry James and Bellow; in When She Was Good (1967), with one that blended Gustave Flaubert and popular romantic melodrama. In Portnay’s Complaint (1969), he cast his novel as a psychoanalytic monologue; in his nightmarish story “On the Air” (1970), he drew on the styles of the radio programs he listened to in his youth; in Our Gang (1971), he blended vaudeville skits, campaign rhetoric, and newsspeak; in The Breast and “Looking at Kafka” (1973) he experimented with the fantastic realism of Franz Kafka and Nikolai Gogol; in The Great American Novel(1973) he wrote in the tradition of the Southwestern tall tale; and in My Lije as a Man he exploited the techniques of the metafictionists themselves. In The Professor of Desire and the...
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