(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 death and therefore his life in the only way Nathan knows, by writing about them. (Part 4 will suggest a very different, though parallel, point of departure for The Counterlife’s multiple narratives.) Henry elected surgery rather than accept the impotence that is a side effect of the drug prescribed to control his heart condition. Henry, it appears, wanted to become sexually active again in order to continue his affair with his dental assistant, Wendy, an affair that is itself the result of, as well as an attenuated version of, Henry’s tempestuous affair with a married Swiss woman named Maria some years before. That affair Henry has confessed to only one person, perversely enough, his brother Nathan, a novelist famous for turning family secrets into bestselling fiction. Having failed to give up his conventional life for a more satisfying, or at least exciting, counterlife in Switzerland with Maria, Henry chooses to risk death rather than give up his more perfunctory and even farcical after-hours dalliance with Wendy. This, of course, is not the version that Henry’s wife Carol offers in the eulogy she delivers in Nathan’s stead. Carol’s Henry is a dedicated family man willing to risk his life for the sake of a complete, which is to say sexually satisfying, marriage. Whether Carol actually believes this “version” of Henry, neither Nathan nor the reader can say for sure. What is clear is that in his uncertainty, Nathan finds ample room for narrative speculation.

Stories and counter-stories, as well as counterlives, continue to...

(The entire section is 1235 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 on the West Bank under the influence of an extreme right-winger, Mordecai Lippman. During his visit, Nathan is several times put on the spot, not only by Henry...

(The entire section is 663 words.)