Another year, another Library of America edition of Philip Roth's novels. The stately publisher has been progressing through Roth's immense both in scope, quality, and sheer amount backlog, with the hope of 'catching up' to him sometime in 2011. Subtitled Novels & Other Narratives 1986-1991, this collection contains The Counterlife, The Facts, Deception, and Patrimony. The Counterlife marked the beginning of the stratospheric phase of Roth's career from an excellent author to a legitimately great one, each book seeming to push him higher and higher among the ranks of American authors. A little over twenty years later, Roth has remained on this perch, and it is not difficult to see why. These four works two novels and two nonfiction pieces are tight, controlled and incredibly effective both as a narration and experimental force. The Counterlife and Patrimony are the highlights of this volume, the former a post-modern romp examining the problem of identity, truth and fiction, while the latter is a wonderful, beautiful and very sad goodbye from Philip Roth to his father, Herman.
The collection opens with The Counterlife. Roth returns again to Nathan Zuckerman, the character=at the heart of his previous four novels (which are collected in the previous Library of America publication, Zuckerman Bound). Instead of a straightforward narration, we are instead presented with a number of situations that actively defy one another in their attempt to accurately present the fate of Nathan and his brother, Henry.
The first chapter, Basel, shows Nathan's reaction to his brother's death on the operating table. Henry Zuckerman had for years been the perfect son to Nathan's literary enfant terrible, but now that he has become impotent (while possessing an attractive mistress who double as his dental assistant), things have started to change. Unfortunately, Henry dies from complications of his heart surgery, which leaves Nathan to act as the responsible brother, picking up the pieces of Henry's life. Nathan does what he can, and the chapter closes. The second chapter, Judea, shifts the tone of the novel. Instead of dying, Henry has emigrated to Israel to live life as a 'proper Jew.' No mention is made of the death in the previous chapter, leaving the reader to wonder what has occurred. Later, a different chapter shows an impotent Nathan living in England, anxious to undergo an operation for his heart. Later again and we have Henry, alive and well, sorting out Nathan's apartment after his brother dies on the operating table...
Roth is playing with the concept of fiction as a tool used to convey truth. Certain of the chapters are later revealed to be works in progress by Zuckerman, but the final creator is, of course, Roth. These are his characters, and he is able to do with them as he pleases. By curling back on his characters and having both Nathan and Henry suffer essentially the same problems, Roth is able to juxtapose the methods used by the brothers to handle their predicament and he is able to juggle the reader's shifting belief of what is truth and what is made up. What is most surprising is that he keeps all of his balls in the air which, considering how many there are, is quite a feat. The Counterlife strays mildly into post-modernist fare, but there is madness to his method. Essential questions about one's portrayal both to themselves and to others are raised and, better, answered.
The Facts is Roth's autobiography. The work opens with a letter from Philip Roth to his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. He writes to Nathan, Is the book any good? Because The Facts has meant more to me than may be obvious and because I've never worked before without my imagination having been fired by someone like you or Portnoy or Kepesh...Be candid.
Candid Nathan must be, but Roth himself is not. Autobiographies provide an opportunity to right wrongs, to air dirty laundry, to ensure that the reading public gets the real story behind a controversy or quarrel. An author must, by virtue of putting pen to paper, choose some facts to include and some to withhold; unless the reader is familiar with the person in question, all they can do is believe, and trust. Roth plays with this by providing us the story of an essentially nice young Jewish man, smart, articulate, and destined (we know) for literary greatness. Roth's mother is nice, Roth's father is nice, Roth's girlfriends are, generally, nice. Everything is rosy, and everything works out for the best. Even when Roth's disastrous marriage is invoked, it comes across as something that was, in the end, a help to his life and career rather than a hindrance.
Zuckerman, of course, picks up on this in his response to Roth, which is located at the end of the novel. Here is the candor you ask for: Don't publish. Zuckerman goes on to excoriate Roth for his blatant misrepresentation of the truth. How could this nice young man, who lived with such nice people, have written an outrageous book like Portnoy's Complaint? It doesn't make sense to Zuckerman and it didn't make sense to us as we read the work Roth is holding something back. It's as if you had worked out in your mind the formula for who you are, and this is it. Very neat but where's the struggle, the struggling you? Roth, through the foil of Zuckerman's critique, viciously savages the autobiographical writer. What is more, Zuckerman's letter provides such a thoughtful, energetic, accurate critique of The Facts that it is difficult to do anything but agree. But what's the alternative? is the closing remark to Zuckerman's letter, and it is this question that stays with the reader. An autobiography cannot be a true retelling of a person's life the only true telling is the life they live, and even that is refracted through the prism of every person they have ever interacted with. An accurate picture of someone cannot be made unless in fiction. There, the gaps that are not told are missing because the narrative demands it, not because they have been chosen with an intent to polish, prim and preen the subject. By writing an autobiography, the writer falsifies the self, chasing away what is not needed in search of the 'facts' that best show the hidden intent of the author. The Facts shows us everything we need to know about Philip Roth except how he actually became Philip Roth and that, of course, is why we would read a book titled 'The Facts' at all. Can we then assume that the only way to know how he became himself is to read his fiction? That is Zuckerman's answer, and it seems satisfying enough.
Deception is a short novel told in conversation between mostly unattributed speakers. A man and a woman - the man sometimes referred to as 'Philip' - discuss love, sex and literature, sometimes in that order and sometimes singly, depending on the situation. The woman is not his wife and is rather ill. Their relationship skirts between the sexual and the ordinary, though it becomes clear that it has been a while between drinks for them. This novel, the third in the collection, displays a similar finesse for satirizing the seemingly essential components of the written word. The characters are intelligent and articulate, and it is a joy to read them talk about well, anything. But then, in a display of literary experimentation which Roth doesn't quite succeed in achieving, a new conversation is begun between Philip and his wife, who has discovered his notebooks. His notebooks? Yes, yes the woman is a character he is developing, and the conversations we have been reading are exercises by Roth to find her personality. His wife doesn't believe him, and nor do we, not quite, but the premise is tantalizing. Who is being deceived? The reader? The wife? Both? Neither? We cannot tell, because Roth doesn't tell us. Instead, like The Counterlife and like The Facts, he provides the problem and leaves the solution to our own personal preference.
Then, finally, Patrimony. This work has all the honesty, all of the heart and dignity, that The Facts consciously avoided. Patrimony tells the story of Philip Roth's father's last few years as a tumor in his brain slowly kills him. Roth has been writing fathers for years strong, passionate, commanding fathers who demand the respect of the protagonist but don't always receive it. They do, however, earn the respect of the reader. It is clear that Herman Roth provided the inspiration for these strong father figures. He is a simple man with a massive heart, a man who finished school very early to help his family financially, who rose through the ranks of an insurance company not given to promoting Jews, who supported his headstrong son throughout his writing career. Herman is a man of dignity, but the tumor that has been growing for a decade is slowly stripping that dignity away.
This is Roth's tenderest work, a sustained narration that stays away from the literary references, the identity games, the Jewish problems, and instead focuses with a clarity and composure that is unmatched in Roth's other writings. There are no outraged riffs or extended discussions on literature; there is nothing at all like the word games played in The Great American Novel or the sharp satire of The Anatomy Lesson. No, Roth has subsumed his own giant ego to display his father, both as the man he is during this last year with a horribly debilitating tumor, and the man he was when he was healthy. Rather than rewinding Herman's life to childhood and then moving forward, Roth employs the same technique he has used throughout many of his own fictions: He shows his father in the present and uses a comment or thought as a springboard to reflect on an event in the past.
We quickly gain a solid sense of Herman Roth as a person. Philip allows Herman to steal the show, but what is most surprising is how well the family comes off as a coherent unit. This shouldn't be a surprise, but for an author who has made family difficulty something of a recurring theme, that his own family is so strong speaks loud. Of course, the best of us is usually on display when a parent is ill, but that neither detracts from Philip's actions or the novel itself.
Patrimony shows both Philip and Herman 'warts and all', but exploitation of grief and misery is not the intent here. Roth is not afraid to portray himself as sad, miserable, confused, grief-stricken, humble, helpless, scared. Similarly, Herman's decline is chronicled with compassion, yes, but also Roth's sharp eye for the everyday mixture of tragedy and comedy so prevalent in our lives. Patrimony is an honest, revealing, beautiful memoir of the father Roth clearly loved. By the end of the work, so can we a trite comment, but one that holds true. As Roth writes, He wasn't just any father, he was the father, with everything there is to hate in a father and everything there is to love.
The Library of America collection moves from strength to strength, and now, following this book, come Roth's greatest achievements. Novels and Other Narratives 1986-1991 shows Roth moving away from the indulgence of his youth to a more controlled, expansive method of narration. His tricks are still evident here, but they are beginning to be removed in favor of more effective storytelling. The upcoming novels, which include The American Trilogy and Sabbath's Theater, show Roth at his very best, with this volume showing him climbing the mountain of his greatness.