Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196
The Ghost Writer opens as young Nathan Zuckerman comes to visit the distinguished stylist E. I. Lonoff at his home in the Berkshires. Zuckerman is filled with admiration and awe for the older writer, with whom he enjoys discussing literature. He is struck, moreover, by the young woman, Amy Bellette, a former student of Lonoff, who is helping Lonoff assemble his papers for deposit in the Harvard library where she works. He is also struck by Lonoff’s wife, Hope, the descendant of New England families different from Lonoff’s Russian-Jewish heritage. At several points, she expresses extreme frustration with the life her husband leads and asks him to “chuck her out” in favor of Amy Bellette, who is obviously in love with him. Lonoff has no intentions of doing any such thing; although he recognizes the young woman’s attractions and devotion to him, he is loyal to his wife and rejects all of her exhortations to the contrary.
Amazed by the situation he finds, but flattered by Lonoff’s praise of his work so far—four published short stories—Zuckerman is easily persuaded to spend the night on a daybed in Lonoff’s study. While trying to write a letter to his father, he finds and reads The Middle Years by Henry James. Lonoff has excerpted an intriguing passage from it about the “madness of art” and pinned it to a bulletin board near his desk. Later, after Amy returns for the evening, Zuckerman hears an argument in the bedroom above him, in which Amy tries to persuade Lonoff to leave Hope and go off with her to a villa in Florence. Lonoff refuses, and afterward Zuckerman has a long fantasy in which he imagines that Amy Bellette is in reality Anne Frank, miraculously saved from the Nazi death camps.
The next morning, all illusions disappear after another scene between Lonoff and Hope, when Zuckerman can find no trace of a tattooed number on Amy’s forearm. As he returns to the artists’ colony at Quahsay, Zuckerman receives some words of advice from Lonoff, who also anticipates with interest what Zuckerman will make in his fiction of everything he has seen and heard during his visit.
In Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan is no longer a young, somewhat callow writer, anxious about making his way in the world, but an accomplished novelist whose fourth book, Carnovsky, has become notorious (just as Portnoy’s Complaint became notorious in Roth’s own life and career). By this time it is apparent that the trilogy is a Bildungsroman, or portrait novel, based, like My Life as a Man, on Roth’s own experiences. It thus presents another “idea of one’s fate,” but without the mediation of Peter Tarnopol. The reader must be constantly careful, however, not to draw exact equivalences between Roth and his surrogates. For example, Zuckerman’s father becomes very upset by his treatment of the family in Carnovsky, quite unlike Roth’s own father, who took pride in everything his son wrote. Roth fictionalizes his experiences to see how they might otherwise have come out, to explore alternative, imaginative versions of them, and thereby gain further insights.
In Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan is beset by people, such as Alvin Pepler, the Jewish Marine, who recognizes him as the author of Carnovsky and believes that the book is autobiographical. A mysterious caller telephones and tries to extort money from him, threatening to kidnap his mother in Miami if he does not pay up. When Zuckerman gets a message from his aunt in Florida, be is sure that his mother has been abducted, but it is his father who is in trouble. He has had a serious heart attack, which proves fatal soon after Zuckerman arrives with his brother Henry.
His father’s last word is ambiguous. Nathan believes that he said “bastard,” but Henry reassures him on the flight home after the funeral that he said “batter,” referring to the days when they all played baseball together. When they get to the Newark airport, after exchanging some further confidences on the plane, Henry suddenly turns on Nathan, and they become estranged. Nathan is left to drive alone through the neighborhood he once knew so well but which has now changed drastically. He feels like he is no one—no man’s son, no woman’s husband, no longer his brother’s brother. He does not come from anywhere any longer, either. He is utterly alone.
He is not quite alone, however, in The Anatomy Lesson. Afflicted by a strange pain in the neck and back that no doctor has been able to diagnose, let alone treat successfully, Zuckerman is attended by four women who look after his various needs, including his sexual needs. Among them are his financial adviser’s wife, the most sexually adroit of them all; a young college student from nearby Finch College, who also works as his secretary; another young woman who lives in Vermont and occasionally comes to town to visit and encourage Zuckerman to come and live in the mountains with her; and finally, Jaga, the Polish émigré who works at the trichologist’s clinic where Zuckerman goes to have his increasing baldness treated.
Nothing works, so Zuckerman decides to give up writing, which he has not been able to do anyway, and return to the University of Chicago, his alma mater, and become a doctor. His college friend, Bobby Freytag, now a prominent anesthesiologist, tries to talk him out of it, but disaster strikes from an unexpected direction. Zuckerman takes Bobby’s father to the cemetery where his wife has recently been buried, and while there Zuckerman goes berserk. Having taken too much Percodan and drunk too much vodka for the pain in his neck, and feeling antagonized by the old man’s sentimentalism, he attacks him, then falls on a tombstone and fractures his jaw. Learning what pain is really like now, in the hospital after surgery, Zuckerman spends his days recuperating and helping patients more unfortunate than he is.
The theme of fathers and sons, pervasive in the trilogy, takes a different twist in The Prague Orgy, which forms the epilogue. Zuckerman is persuaded by a Czech émigré and writer to rescue his father’s short stories, written in Yiddish, from the writer’s sex-crazy wife. In Prague, Zuckerman meets other writers and intellectuals, as well as Olga Sisovsky, who finally turns over the stories to him. Although well known as the author of Carnovsky to some who admire his work, he is not allowed to leave the country with the stories, which are confiscated. Instead, he is escorted to the airport by Novak, the minister of culture, who delivers a lecture to him on the values of socialism, particularly as they pertain to cultural deviance and filial respect. The patriotism of Novak’s father, however, is little more than political expediency, and the cultural deviance is simply a code word for divergence from the party line. Zuckerman realizes this and realizes, too, that it apparently was not his fate to become a “cultural eminence” or hero by performing extraordinary literary deeds such as rescuing the Sisovsky manuscripts.