“But the might-have-been is but boggy ground to build on,” notes the narrator of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924). “The might-have-been,” however, is the very stuff on which Zuckerman and Roth build their various counterlives and counter-books. A simple “what if” yields a proliferation of narrative deductions and permutational possibilities in a text that manages to delight and disorient in equal measure. Along the way, biographical facts become metaphorical structures: Bypass surgery becomes a system of narrative bypasses, blocked arteries turn into blocked stories, and impotence, infidelity, and promiscuity become textual as well as sexual facts of life in a novel that invites “polymorphous perversity” while resisting “simple penetration.” As with the cryonics mentioned in “Basel,” so with Roth’s entire novel: “Anything is possible,” including the resurrection of the dead. In “Judea,” in “a world of bare beginnings,” Henry begins again, a rugged self for a rugged landscape.
Every significant character in The Counterlife exists in multiple versions, not just written and rewritten, but read and reread, interpreted and reinterpreted, as the line separating actual events from imagined ones blurs, both becoming the raw materials for Nathan’s nonstop “narrative factory.” In effect, the novel reproduces Roth’s usual compositional process: eighteen months or so spent writing in an effort to find his subject, followed by six months writing the more or less final draft. Where The Counterlife differs from Roth’s earlier work is in its foregrounding of the compositional process by incorporating material, as it were, from the initial eighteen-month groping stage, material normally consigned to the wastebasket or file cabinet. In doing so, Roth makes The Counterlife into his most playful yet also most serious, extensive, and provocative meditation on what critic Bernard Rodgers has called “the enigma of identity” in relation to “the conflicts between life and art, the writer and his creations, reality and fiction.” Typical of Roth’s approach to writing as a form of “problem solving,” The Counterlife is, in Paul Gray’s words, “a metaphysical thriller” about “the elusive nature of truth”—or, as Nathan imagines Maria saying rather accusingly, about Nathan’s “preoccupation with irresolvable conflict.” Thus, the novel plays the pastoral impulse in its various guises (including and especially Mrs. Freshfield’s) against the entanglements and contradictions of its five parts.