Philip Roth's fiction has always been heavily intertwined with the facts of his own life. Many of his stories are seen as little more than glossed-over accounts of events from his life, and some go so far as to have the character 'Philip Roth' as the protagonist. In the late ‘70s, Roth created the character of Nathan Zuckerman, a Jewish author with many similarities to Roth - both wrote 'racy' novels decrying Jewish stubbornness and carrying heavy themes of sexual desire and repression, both became successful from these novels, both had to deal with the backlash that comes with controversial works - and it is to this character that Zuckerman Bound is devoted. Four novels, a trilogy plus an epilogue, all previously published separately over a six year period, make up the book. The trilogy stands firm as an author-as-artist exploration of the difficulties when art and life combine, while the epilogue, in departing almost entirely from the theme, falls somewhat flat.
The first novella is The Ghost Writer. Nathan Zuckerman is looking back to when he was young, full of literary fire but not yet possessed of the fame and fortune that would dog his later steps. The young Nathan has had a few short stories published in various literary magazines and, on the strength of these plus a letter, has secured an evening with a writer he admires highest of all, E. I. Lonoff, purported to be a thinly veiled reference to Bernard Malamud. 'I finally sent him the tenth draft and then tried to stick my arm down the throat of the mailbox to extract it,' Nathan tells the reader. From here, we are given a bit of background both on Nathan's quest for a mentor/father figure following an argument with his true father over the contents of a story he wrote, and the career and personality quirks of Lonoff, who has given himself to literature in all the ways that matter, spending his days 'turning sentences around, and then turning them around again', all the while ignoring his wife and rejecting the advances of comely Amy Bellette. From this setup, Roth uses Nathan Zuckerman's young, hopeful mind to explore the twin themes of a writer dried up and changed from years spent working with words, and the expectant, arrogant, charming, foolish views that an author not yet recognized or even published might have of his craft.
The second is another novella, Zuckerman Unbound. We meet up with Nathan a decade or so later, after his novel, Carnovsky, has been published to extreme financial and critical success. Everyone knows him, everyone has an opinion of him. It is worth noting that the exact same thing happened to Philip Roth upon publication of Portnoy's Complaint, and indeed, Roth makes it quite clear that the two novels are very, very similar. We may imagine that Roth, while dealing with his own problems following the success of Portnoy's Complaint, saw fit to fictionalize and extend, enhance and embrace the difficulties until he was able to comment upon the art of writing, interacting with fans, and the problems fame can bring. To say that Zuckerman Unbound - or any of the Zuckerman novels - are glimpses into the life of Roth are mistaken. What they are is a look into the mind of a writer who has filtered and highlighted the facets of his existence that directly related to, and come within, the umbrella of his fiction.
The Anatomy Lesson is the longest work in the book, clocking in at a novel-sized 304 pages. Set a few years later than Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan is combating writer's block and illness. Carnovsky is the monkey on his back, scrabbling away at him, causing him pain, misery, worry, regret, sadness, literary justification and, admittedly, the money to wallow in grief. This novel is the highlight of the four, and shows Roth climbing the heights of anger, a style he would develop and perfect in his later Zuckerman trilogy, written in the ‘90s. Raging against a Jewish critic who considers Zuckerman anti-Jewish, anti-intellectual, anti-everything, he writes, 'Those xenophobes, those sentimental, chauvinist, philistine Jews, vindicated in their judgement of Zuckerman by the cultivated verdict of unassailable Appel, Jews whose political discussions and cultural pleasures and social arrangements, whose simple dinner conversation, the Distinguished Professor couldn't have borne for ten seconds.' Later, one can't help but think Roth is commenting on his own critics: 'So: undeluded by what grown-ups were pretending to their students, Appel had attributed to the author the rebellious outcry of a claustrophobic fourteen-year-old boy. This was a licensed literary critic? No, no - an overwrought polemicist for endangered Jewry. The letter could have come from the father in Carnovsky. It could have comes from his own real father.'
Flying to Chicago to enroll in medical school, Zuckerman wraps himself in the story of Milton Appel, the pornographer. At first, he is merely playing with words, trying to shock his flightmate and, one presumes, the reader, but soon Zuckerman is relishing the role he has stumbled upon. There are long, angry, arrogant, insightful diatribes against the situation of free speech, pornographer and the right to expression given from Zuckerman to his hapless (female) limousine driver, Ricky. These rants are hilarious, but they also contain sharp slivers of criticism against America that, if you aren't careful, will slice to the bone. Read shallowly, it is easy to enjoy his anger about free speech; read more deeply, Roth is clearly outraged against the public's stubborn insistence to associate the author with his work, to demand that the author be held accountable for the actions, thoughts and ideas of their characters. Clearly this is wrong, but how can we properly disassociate the two? Where does the author begin and the characters end? Or, where do the characters begin and the author end? The difficult of the question, the subtlety of posing it properly, suggests a large amount of the problem. Roth is outraged that it should even matter that his characters believed this or said that, that he himself absolutely must be a different person to any of the characters located within his work. But can we believe him? For all the outrage, all the anger, the rants, the discussions, the arguments, the diatribes, the monologues, Roth has, surely knowingly, created in Nathan Zuckerman a man who is very, very close to himself. And that, of course, is the point. Authors create their characters, they arrange the plot and determine the ideas shown within. But that does not mean that their works are the sum total of their lives. Roth is showing this through the character of Zuckerman, and he shows it well. Read Roth's books - any author’s works - with an eye to that what is written represents a facet, not the entirety, of the person who had put pen to paper. Entangling the two is a difficult, dangerous, foolhardy affair for the author, and worse for a reader.
Concluding the work is The Prague Orgy, a very short piece that has Zuckerman travel to Prague where he becomes embroiled within the surreal difficulties associated in dealing with the then-Communist government. The tone of the last three works has shifted to deal primarily with sex, politics, artistic repression and the lengths a person would go to secure lasting literary fame. While these themes are tangentially related to the trilogy's, it is undeniable that this work is the weakest among the four. Read on its own, without the Zuckerman character, this may perhaps have been a valid work. Coming off a trilogy that deals with its themes of the author versus the character so masterfully, the flaws are only too apparent. Read the trilogy for what Roth has to say about writers and writing, read the epilogue for a 'story'.