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Philip Roth: Novels and Other Narratives 1986-1991 / The Counterlife / The Facts / Deception / Patrimony (Library of America #185) Hardcover – September 4, 2008
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Nathan Zuckerman is a staple among Rothean heroes. In 'Counterlife', of 1986, he is an observer, a narrator, a lead actor, and a catalyst. His subject is the life of his younger brother, and his own. We know of brother Henry, the New Jersey dentist, and his abnormally perfect and bland wife, from previous Zuckerman novels.
An alternative title for this book was 'If/then'. I wonder if Roth is ever serious at all. He must explore the comical sides to the most serious issues.
This is what Nathan says about Henry, half way through: if Henry was ever going to be interesting, it was me who would have to do it.
But then we watch Henry gaining the upper hand. That's life, that's fiction. Roth at his playful best.
After that, Roth felt like moving from fiction to facts. Just don't believe it. In 'Facts', of 1988, we are given an 'autobiography' of the 55 year old. It focuses on a young life of bliss, upset by a bad marriage. Roth wasn't sure (so he claims), if this miserable piece of 'My Ex the Bitch' should be published at all. He asks his creature Zuckerman for advice. Zuckerman is against it, but what practical power does a hero have?
It gets even more bizarre between the two men. 'Deception' of 1990 gives the Roth alter ego as a Jewish American writer in England, engaged in dialogues, mostly with a woman with whom he has an adulterous affair. We learn that Zuckerman has died at 44 and the man in the dialogue is working at a biography. Absurdly amusingly confusing. And then he goes and rants about anti-semitism in England. And against his feminist critics.
Finally: 'Patrimony', a narrative of the dying process of the author's father. Realistic, serious, probably entirely honest. A very impressive dissection of a procedure that we all dread.
Roth is growing on me.
'The Counterlife' is one of Roth's explorations in multiple- identity post- modern fiction. It also provides him an opportunity to explore the reality of Israel and to give his complex sense of what it means to be a Jew in the modern world. His reversing the normal order of things and ranting on about how it is the Jews of Israel who are the endangered species shows his political bias and awareness. I do not sympathize with his view of the Jewish religion or of the political situation in Israel but he has acute insight into many of the types of characters who live there.
All in all his work always has elements of brilliance and most often humor. At times however the Imagination runs on too long and he wears the reader down.
Nonetheless the work here and his work in general is in the first rank.