In 1960, Philip Roth was the boy wonder of American letters; by age twenty-seven, he had four stories in O. Henry, and Best Stories anthologies, he had won the National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), and he had been appointed to the faculty of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. In the following decade he published two very earnest novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), neither of which created the kind of critical or popular attention that marked his entry into the literary world. Then in 1969, he made an instant name for himself as the bad boy of American letters with a book that made masturbation a subject and obscenity an art, Portnoy’s Complaint. A new tone was set which was followed in the next three years with the satiric Our Gang, the Kafkaesque The Breast, and the farcical The Great American Novel. Since then, with My Life as a Man (1974), Reading Myself and Others (1975), The Professor of Desire (1977), The Ghost Writer (1979), and now Zuckerman Unbound, Roth’s work has been primarily concerned with self-justification and stock-taking.
In his Introduction to Reading Myself and Others, an anthology of essays and interviews, Roth pointed out that he was involved with the writer’s “seemingly interminable task of self-justification.” Although he felt in that collection, with so many words already written in its service, that this task would no longer be so pressing, he concluded his introductory notes with the reservation that “it may not be within my power, or for that matter, in my own best interest, ever to consider that particular job done.” Four books later, the job still goes on. However, Zuckerman Unbound, which continues the adventures of that ficitional creation Nathan Zuckerman, introduced during Roth’s first stock-taking novel, My Life as a Man, and taken up again in The Ghost Writer, may indeed signal that Roth’s particular job of self-justification is finally finished. At least, Zuckerman Unbound attempts to lay several of Roth’s ghosts to rest: notably the dominant father figure that has always preoccupied him and the frequent public accusation that he is anti-Semitic and self-hating in his writing. The book also makes one more (hopefully the last) effort to answer the question posed so often to Roth after the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint: “How did you write that book?”
Zuckerman Unbound focuses primarily on Zuckerman’s reaction to the publication of his successful novel Carnovsky in 1969 (the same year that Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint). He has made a million dollars, has been on the cover of Life magazine, is stopped by strangers on the street, is gossiped about by starlets on television talk shows, is criticized for depicting Jews in a “peep-show atmosphere of total perversion,” and has his “sex credentials under scrutiny by the press.” His anxiety about this response, especially given the restrained kind of writing he has published previously, is best perceived by his agent, Andre, who reminds him how stultified he felt writing “proper, responsible” novels and being a model of “Mature Adult Behavior.” Andre tells him he purposely set out to sabotage his own “dignified, high-minded gravity” and now that he has done it, he is humiliated that no one sees it as a “profoundly moral and high-minded act.”
In addition to coping with fame, primarily in a farcical manner (which has him briefly dating Caesara O’Shea, a sex symbol who reads Søren Kierkegaard and who leaves him for an affair with Fidel Castro), Zuckerman must deal with his recent separation from his third wife, a saintly lawyer and do-gooder; with Alvin Pepler, an ex-quiz show contestant with a photographic memory who dogs his steps; an anonymous caller (whom he suspects is Pepler) threatening to kidnap his mother; and the death of his father, which Zuckerman’s brother blames on the book Carnovsky with its humiliating picture of the Zuckerman family in particular and Jews in general. This is indeed a great deal to cope with in a short book with only four chapters, and this is perhaps the reason that Zuckerman Unbound seems vaguely unsatisfying. Rather than a unified novel, it reads more like a fragmented effort to tie up various artistic and psychological loose ends.
The most interesting aspect of Zuckerman Unbound is its treatment of the relationship between the written world and the unwritten world. A brief background of Zuckerman’s earlier fictional life in this novel and in The Ghost Writer may help put the issue in perspective. Zuckerman begins his existence as the fictional creation of Peter Tarnopol in two “useful fictions” in My Life as a Man. Tarnopol writes the stories to try to exorcise the effects of his disastrous first marriage and to help to define himself as a man and an artist. Thus, Nathan Zuckerman is the persona of Peter Tarnopol in “Salad Days” and “Courting Disaster” in the first half of My Life as a Man, and Tarnopol is in turn the persona of Philip Roth in Tarnopol’s “True Story” in the second half of the novel. Even as Roth purposely makes the reader confuse and blend the three figures in My Life as a Man, mixing autobiography with fiction on several levels at once, he also attempts to clarify the distinction between them. In an interview with Joyce Carol Oates after publication of My Life as a Man, Roth said that the “legend of the self” is a “useful fiction” that readers frequently mistake for veiled...
(The entire section is 2360 words.)