The trilogy and epilogue gathered together in Zuckerman Bound trace twenty years in the literary and personal life of Nathan Zuckerman. His story begins in The Ghost Writer, narrated by Zuckerman in 1976, which recounts events of twenty years earlier. At odds with his father and pillars of his community such as Judge Leopold Wapter over the content of his first stories, which present unflattering portraits of Jewish characters, Nathan visits the isolated Berkshire home of E. I. Lonoff, “the most famous literary ascetic in America,” to submit himself for candidacy as a spiritual son.
During the winter evening and morning he spends at Lonoff’s, he gets the validation that he is seeking—Lonoff toasts “a wonderful new writer” and declares that Nathan has “the most compelling voice I’ve encountered in years.” He also gets, however, a lesson he had not anticipated: about just how much the religion of art to which he has dedicated himself demands of its acolytes and of those close to them.
For if Nathan’s dedication to his art has begun to alienate him from his loving family, Lonoff’s single-minded dedication to his parables of “terminal restraint,” to a life made up of “turning sentences around,” has already cut him off from those nearest to him, especially his wife, Hope. While Nathan is visiting, her frustration and unhappiness explode, destroying his illusions that a writer’s life will be a serene and ordered idyll.
The proximate cause of Hope’s outburst and the means of escape from their isolation that both the older and the younger writer briefly imagine is a young woman named Amy Bellette. A refugee from Europe, a survivor of the camps with a shadowy past, she is a former student of Lonoff who has taken on the task of arranging his manuscripts. To Lonoff, she offers the possibility of starting over—a possibility finally as inconceivable to him as it would be to one of his characters, whose impulses are extinguished by “the ruling triumvirate of Sanity, Responsibility, and Self-Respect.” To Nathan, who imagines that she is actually Anne Frank, spared from the Holocaust to become his wife, she is a way of silencing his critics by allowing him to demonstrate his Sanity, Responsibility, and Self-Respect. For both Lonoff and Zuckerman, however, Amy is finally only a fantasy of escape. Each is left to face the consequences of his vocation without her help.
In Zuckerman Unbound, set in 1969, those consequences multiply for Nathan with dizzying and hilarious effects. As the novel begins, he has recently published his fourth book, Carnovsky, a no-holds-barred account of growing up Jewish in Newark. Wilder than anything the serious young writer has written before, it quickly becomes a succès de scandale that disrupts his entire life. His youthful ambitions for artistic fame are fulfilled, but fame in contemporary America turns out to be a bit more than he bargained for.
His picture is on the cover of Life magazine; people stop him on the street to advise him about how to invest his money and to ask him about “his” sexual exploits; his mail is almost evenly divided between propositions and letters comparing him to Joseph Goebbels; a rock singer he has never met leaves the audience of The Tonight Show doubled over with laughter by describing her experience with his sexual proclivities; his name is linked in gossip columns with other women he has never met; a jet-setting film star he has met, Caesara O’Shea, leaves him for Fidel Castro; and when he turns on his television set, he finds a panel of psychiatrists analyzing his castration complex.
In Florida, his mother is being inundated with telephone calls from the press asking what “Mrs. Carnovsky” is really like, while, back in New York,...
(The entire section is 1580 words.)