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The Counterlife Paperback – August 6, 1996

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Editorial Reviews Review

The saga of Henry and Nathan Zuckerman continues, 13 years after novelist Nathan Zuckerman first appeared in Roth's 1974 effort, My Life as a Man. In The Counterlife, the dentist Henry suffers an unsettling--and for Roth, a predictable--side effect to his heart medication: impotence, which leads him to undergo an ill-fated operation. The multi-layered plot line travels from New York to London to Israel, while the characters undergo a series of surprising transformations. In the words of Nathan, a change in one's life causes "a counterlife that is one's own anti-myth." It's vintage Roth.

From Library Journal

One of Roth's "Zuckerman" books, The Counterlife follows protagonist Nathan Zuckerman from New York to Israel to London. "Along the way, monologues, eulogies, letters, interviews, and conversations ponder Judaism and Zionism, the nature of personality, the competing claims of imagination and life, and sex" (LJ 2/15/87).
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage International
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 6, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679749047
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679749042
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #72,845 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

In the 1990s Philip Roth won America's four major literary awards in succession: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony (1991), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock (1993), the National Book Award for Sabbath's Theater (1995), and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for American Pastoral (1997). He won the Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I Married a Communist (1998); in the same year he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House. Previously he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Counterlife (1986) and the National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). In 2000 he published The Human Stain, concluding a trilogy that depicts the ideological ethos of postwar America. For The Human Stain Roth received his second PEN/Faulkner Award as well as Britain's W. H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year. In 2001 he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, given every six years "for the entire work of the recipient." In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians Award for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003--2004." In 2007 Roth received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Everyman.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By jonsj on August 16, 2005
Format: Paperback
The Counterlife is one of Roth's most unusual and experimental novels, and finds Roth in transition from the spare, elegant books of the Zuckerman Bound trilogy to the more expansive Zuckerman novels of his recent, acclaimed "America" trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain).

In The Counterlife we get the full range of Roth--from the moving but wickedly funny first part Basel, where Nathan Zuckerman narrates the events leading to his brother Henry's death and subsequent funeral, to the second section Judea, where Nathan goes to Israel to try to lure Henry (restored to life and now part of a militant Zionist group) back home to the States, to a later section where Nathan has died, and an estranged Henry attends his funeral, to the final sections with Nathan in England, dealing with anti-Semitism and his wife's family in a brilliant bit of social comedy.

Plot sounds confusing, right? Yet The Counterlife is not a wildly post-modern novel, but a fairly straightforward read. Not all parts of the book work as effectively as the others, and the book is less finished than some of Roth's other work, but there are stretches here that contain some of the best writing Roth has ever done. This is a book deeply concerned with questions of identity and free will--more specifically about the many lives we create for ourselves and the way we often form these lives by reacting with or against other people's conceptions of us.

It's a remarkably thought-provoking and absorbing novel; if I would withhold it from the very top tier of Roth's achievements it's only because it lacks the cohesion and concentration of his best work. Still, a deeply rewarding book, and a must-read for Roth fans.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 30, 1998
Format: Paperback
Philip Roth is one of the most highly acclaimed Jewish-American writers of our time, and The Counterlife confirms his skill as a craftsman and a philosopher on Jewish matters. Roth creates perfect environments for the scrutiny of a subject one frequently encounters in his work: The intellectual secular Jewish male's search for and affirmation of his identity.
This theme is woven into each of the novel's five chapters, which are authored in first-person narrative by the fictional writer Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman defines identity by weighing secularity against religious fervor, masculinity against femininity, potency against impotency, and Jewish awareness against anti-Semitism.
While the novel is set in Zuckerman's fictional world, the chapters each tell separate stories. The situations Zuckerman creates vary, and thus three forms of Jewish identity between which he seems to be caught are examined. Zuckerman experiences the identities of the secular son of traditional Jewish parents, of being a militant Jew's brother, and of the son-in-law grappling with his mother-in-law's anti-Semitism which causes the failure of yet another attempt at family life.
Similar themes can be identified in Roth's other works, such as Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint. However, the post-modern structure of The Counterlife allows for their juxtaposition within one novel, thereby offering the reader a spectrum of the protagonist's issues of identity.
Roth's prose is explicit, witty, and even funny, making the novel a truely enjoyable and engaging read. In the interest of authenticity, he does not recoil from using obscenities.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By William J. Fickling on November 16, 2009
Format: Paperback
This is the best novel I have read by Philip Roth (so far). It is unlike anything I have read by him before, or by many others, for that matter. When I finished it, I was reminded of a number of musical compositions called "Variations On a Theme By xxxxx), in which a composer takes a theme by another composer and then composes several variations on that theme. Here, however, the original theme is by Roth himself, so that Roth is writing variations on his own theme.

I don't like people who write reviews with spoilers, so I won't do that here, in that I won't reveal any crucial plot elements. However, I don't believe it would ruin any prospective reader's enjoyment to reveal the book's basic structure. The book is divided into 5 sections. In the first, a major event occurs to one of the characters. In the second, the tape is rewound and that same character's life takes another course. In the third and, in my opinion, the most expendable part of the book, which follows directly from the second section, an unsettling event happens to one of the other main characters. In the fourth, the tape is rewound once again and the same thing that happened to one of the characters in the first section happens to one of the other characters. The fifth section follows directly from the second without the events in the third section having happened. Moreover, in this section one of the characters becomes aware that she is a character in a novel and begins talking back to the author.

Confused? I wouldn't blame you if you were. However, the book does come together with remarkable coherence at the end because it deals with several universal human themes. I think all human beings have "what ifs?" in their lives.
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