Zuckerman Bound is an important work in Philip Roth’s oeuvre, because it sets up a character—Nathan Zuckerman—and themes to which Roth’s later works repeatedly turn. His main interests are the relationship between an author and his (or her) work and the relationship between fiction and reality. Zuckerman Bound is also unique in American literature as an extended bildungsroman, a chronicle of an artist’s development through different phases of his career—from obscurity, to fame, to infamy, to something resembling a balance between being a writer and being human. These are phases that both Roth and Zuckerman would consider at odds, and which certainly complicate one another.
Zuckerman serves as Roth’s alter ego in the Zuckerman series of books and as a device for Roth to explore his concerns with the relationship of art to life. The similarities between novelist and character are undeniable: a Newark childhood; study at the University of Chicago; early published stories concerning Jews that the critics praised and Jews found offensive; publication of several “safe” novels before writing sexually frank accounts of adolescence. Zuckerman furthermore provides a thematic and narrative framework for many of Roth’s later novels, including The Counterlife (1986), American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000), and Exit Ghost (2007).
Probably the most salient thread in Zuckerman Bound is the exploration of the relationship between real life and fiction and fiction-writing, the seed of which is planted in The Ghost Writer, in which Zuckerman begins to experience the peril of using real life as source material. Zuckerman, too, always attempts to use writing to fix the problems that writing has created—another frustrating endeavor, which emerges first around the figure of student Amy Bellette. Zuckerman imagines—indeed, he writes—her into his own life story as Anne Frank, as his wife and unassailable symbol of virtuous Jewishness to bring home to his parents, to wear like a commendation.
Another thematic thread that begins in The Ghost Writer and is fleshed out later in the collection is the idea of reconciling individuality with history and familial expectations. Zuckerman incessantly wrestles...
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