The Counterlife – 4/5 Stars
Philip Roth seemingly spent his 1980s making further sense or at least writing about what it means to be Jewish, not just in the US, which many of his 50s, 60s, and 70s books dealt, but what it meant to be Jewish in the world. The Counterlife specifically helps to sort out, not necessarily the answer to that question, but to clarify and state precisely the question itself.
I am looking back though now, actually to see exactly when the other Zuckerman novels came out (Not Human Stain, American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist, but the ones where he’s the sole protagonist), and I back up and restate that Zuckerman definitely spent his 1970s addressing the question as well.
Roth, though, with both this book and Operation Shylock, and through a lot of his nonfiction work was working through that question. This novel specifically begins with Nathan Zuckerman’s 39 year old brother dying from complications from bypass surgery, a surgery that is clearly presented in the novel as elective, as the only thing that was physically wrong with him was that he was no longer able to get erections, and even though his marriage was moving into a sexless state, this complicated an emerging affair he was having with his dental receptionist. So the novel begins there and then with Nathan writing a kind of eulogy in the form of a short story about his death. From there, the novel splinters into multiple different stories where sometimes Nathan is the dead brother, the impotent brother, one where his brother, instead of dying has moved to Israel to join a pseudo-messianic group, a kind of Ambassadors in a way, a story in which Nathan is looking down the barrel of marriage number four with a 28 year old English woman whose mother is quite the anti-semite and so forth. And so through the different variations of the story here, we explore in writing what does it mean to be a Jew in the world, and what does it mean to write fiction about this.
The Professor of Desire – 3/5 Stars
If you’ve already read The Breast, well, you already know a thing or two about David Kepesh to get you through this book. I am constantly reminded in Roth’s writing of just so powerfully talented of a writer he is, but also how that doesn’t always create good fiction or a good book. This book does actually have a lot in it that I find really good and interesting, but it’s got plenty of the other as well. The novel takes David Kepesh, another of Roth’s pseudo-avatars — and I think avatar is better than stand in or counterpart — because I don’t actually think Roth IS David Kepesh, the way I sometimes do think he IS Nathan Zuckerman. He’s also playing a lot more in his Kepesh novels, and he’s FEELING and THINKING in his Zuckerman books. David begins our novel as a college student with a reputation of a ladies man. What the intellects call a “poon hound”. Anyway, for all this reputation, he tells us that he’s only had sex maybe twice in college. It’s more of a mindset for him. From college we move onto a few important sexual encounters and relationships in his life. A threesome in London with a girl he really likes in his grad program there as well as a willing partner who has a bad reaction to the act. The subsequent guilt and shame that he feels leads to an aversion to sex and a dissolution with the other partner. Later we see a marriage that is doomed from the beginning as he marries a woman he’s sleeping with only after the relationship feels over.
One of the prevailing things that happens in this novel is that David projects his own guilt and shame onto the women he’s sleeping with. He doesn’t hate them (well….) for his guilt in a kind of transference, but he does assume they are also feeling it, and hating him. It’s just as destructive, and worse, he’s doing it to himself. It’s an indulgent book that has good in it, but is not a particularly good book.
The Dying Animal – 1/5 Stars