On the dust jacket of The Facts is a 1950 photograph of Roth’s senior homeroom class at Weequahic High School in Newark. The future author gazes into the camera with a cherubic smile, the kind of boy of whom teachers and parents were justly proud. Yet the observer notes that in the group portrait he is standing slightly to the side of the others, as though already committed to Emily Dickinson’s ambition to “tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.”
In his 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction,” Roth bemoaned the imagination’s inability to rival the grotesque reality of contemporary American life. Why invent when the world already offers up events and characters that exceed the powers of fantasy? Roth’s fictions have been a slanted tribute and challenge to that world. His autobiography is a carefully constructed demonstration of how difficult it is not to shape The Facts. Though Roth claims “exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions, and lies,” he nevertheless, in another of his characteristically sly exercises in imagination, has Zuckerman note that autobiography is “probably the most manipulative of all literary forms.”
Written when its fifty-five-year-old author was recovering from what he refers to vaguely as surgery that put him on “the edge of emotional and mental dissolution,” The Facts presents itself as the attempt of a middle-aged author to reconcile himself at last to the ghosts of his past. For the man who gave voice to Alexander Portnoy’s vociferous complaints, this is an oddly mellow evocation of the joys of Jewish family life in what are presented as the halcyon years following World War II. Even the post-football game attack against the Jews of Weequahic by their rivals of Barringer High is presented almost wistfully, as a thrilling adolescent adventure. Zuckerman asks Roth where his trademark anger has gone, accusing him of idealizing and sentimentalizing people and situations that have long ceased to threaten him, of leaching the venom from his sources of creativity. He has transformed the primal domestic household that empowered the rage behind his best-known fictions into “a serene, desirable, pastoral haven.” Yet Roth also retains the services of Zuckerman to poison the treacle.
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If Philip Roth had never written his distinctive fictions, few would probably be interested in his account of a not especially exceptional life away from books. Without the intense and widespread reaction that his stories have provoked, he certainly would never have written The Facts, a maligned and self-maligning author’s attempt to set the record straight by shaping it to fit the category of nonfiction. Just as Our Gang (1971) employed grotesque caricature in order to posit truths about the Nixon Administration and The Ghost Writer (1979) implausibly resurrected Anne Frank in New England in order to discover universal truths about the connections among suffering, love, and art, The Facts marshals verifiable data to create another of Roth’s troubled narratives.
Students of Roth’s career will likely be intrigued by correspondences between events in his life and episodes in his writing. In My Life As a Man (1974), for example, Peter Tarnopol is duped into marrying Maureen Johnson when she feigns pregnancy by borrowing the urine sample of a black woman she encounters in the park. In The Facts, Roth points out that the woman he calls Josie perpetrated virtually the same fraud on him. He claims, however, that this section of My Life As a Man was the most directly autobiographical of his fictions, because he simply could not imagine a more dramatic scenario: “Those scenes represent one of...
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