THE COUNTERLIFE by Philip Roth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 324 pp.)


Philip Roth has made his fifth run at the insatiable Nathan Zuckerman, that wrestler with ambition, fame, sex, his writer’s identity, his Jewish identity and his uncontainable urge to have not merely the last word, but every other word as well.

In “The Ghost Writer,” Roth introduced him as a young novelist on the make, treading upon the nimbus of his revered and resented role model, Lonoff. He returned him as “Zuckerman Unbound,” celebrity author of a hugely successful book that shocked family and friends and that clearly suggested Roth and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

“The Anatomy Lesson” had Zuckerman crippled with a bad back, ministered to by a relay of agile women, and still at work punishing self-doubt with rage and rage with self-doubt. In “The Prague Orgy,” Roth sent him briefly off to Czechoslovakia, as if to see whether he could find release in a world where authorial paranoia is dignified by genuine enemies.


And now: “The Counterlife.” Like a machine turning faster and faster and hotter and hotter, it flies apart. Through a story that takes place in Israel and England as well as in the United States, Roth propels Zuckerman all ways at once.

He kills him off, brings him back, and confuses him with his dentist-brother, Henry. He tells his story variously as something actually happening, as possible fictions contrived by Zuckerman, and as versions supplied by his English wife and by Henry. These versions, in turn, may be distorted by self-interest, or they may be additional Zuckerman fictions.

There are alternative beginnings and endings, sliding panels, sleight-of-hand. As always--but more so--the protagonist implacably pursues his arguments and conclusions in opposite and simultaneous directions. No cake was ever so lavishly consumed and so jealously saved as Zuckerman’s.

“The Counterlife” is ingenious, frequently dazzling, and the most entertaining and inventive overdose that Roth has written since “Portnoy.” It is the Zuckerman book to end all Zuckerman books. But it doesn’t.

After enough transformations to constitute genetic mutation, Zuckerman, whether dead or alive, is obstinately there: unrelieved, unredeemed and unchanged. The notion is at least faintly appalling. I am not sure whether Roth is ready for more, let alone his readers, but his hero--or Frankenstein monster?--clearly is.

Here is a brief account of the book’s variations.

The first section tells of the ostensible death of Henry, whose humdrum domestic life achieved excitement and hope through two clandestine affairs, the first--long ended--with a Swiss woman, the second--continuing--with Wendy, his dental assistant. Henry develops angina, and his heart medicine makes him impotent. Rather than be deprived of Wendy, he insists, against his doctor’s advice, on a bypass operation. It kills him.


The obsessive extremity of Henry’s choice seems more typical of his brother. And it is Zuckerman who tells Henry’s story. This should make us suspicious. And sure enough, in the following section, Zuckerman is in Israel seeking out Henry. Henry has survived his operation, fallen into a depression, and--needing a different kind of extremity--joined a fanatic colony of Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

After an inconclusive, and stunningly written, encounter with Henry and Mordecai, the colonists’ charismatic leader, Zuckerman flies to London to join his pregnant English wife, Maria. There is an attempted hijacking in which the protagonist, mistaken for an accomplice, is beaten by Israeli security men, one of whom, naturally, quotes Melville and T. S. Eliot. And before Zuckerman can reach London, the narration is turned upside down once more, and Henry takes over.

Now, it seems, it was Zuckerman who was impotent and who submitted to the fatal bypass operation in order to have sex with Maria. Fresh from his brother’s funeral, Henry visits his apartment, finds the note and manuscripts of what we have read, and destroys part of them as libelous inventions. Right after this, Maria appears and is interviewed by Zuckerman’s ghost about her reaction to the book’s final section, which follows.

In this last section, entitled “Christendom,” Zuckerman is alive and potent. He reaches London, joins Maria and goes through a series of painful encounters with her relatives. They are country gentry whose politely concealed, and probably vestigial, anti-Semitism Zuckerman ferrets out and amplifies into a major and possibly terminal quarrel with Maria.

I say “possibly,” because readers are free to decide what “Christendom’s” ambiguous ending means. They are also free to decide whether it is, in fact, a fictional manuscript surviving Zuckerman’s real death or whether it is the death that is fictional and “Christendom” that is real. Or neither.

So much for the form: Rashomon-like variations on an event, except that instead of different versions by different witnesses, we have different versions by the same witness. That is not quite it, either: Here, the witness is the storyteller, who inserts himself into and withdraws himself from the actions of his personages. The storyteller in this case being Zuckerman. I will get to Roth at the end, since “The Counterlife”--much more thoroughly than its predecessors--is above all a novel about the meaning of authorship.


On the way there, though, it is a number of other things too; things that conflict, I think, with the book’s larger intentions.

In fact--and you may ask: With such criticism, who needs praise?--Roth is so good in his particular themes and set-pieces that we may object to their being used as tiles in his more abstract and capricious now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t mosaic.

The first section’s grim and witty account of a man giving up his life for the sake of a sexual obsession is a dark masterpiece. Henry’s sexual connection is so frigid in spirit as virtually to suggest excretion. Yet despite its frequent absurdity, Roth makes the spectacle of a man fighting against old age and terminal suburbia convincing--at least, symbolically--as well as comic.

The Israel section, to my mind, may be the best bit of sustained writing Roth has done. The paradoxes and conflicts of that paradoxical and conflicted country have not waited for Roth to discover them, but they seem made for him. In his portrait of a humane and disillusioned Zionist--a journalist who once worked for Ben Gurion and is sensitive to the moral dimensions of the fight against the Arabs--the author has perfect pitch. The same precision goes into the magnetic and militant Mordecai, who wants to settle a Greater Israel by force and faith.

Still better, Roth has rung all the possible changes on the arguments--often internal, often inside the same person--among Diaspora, assimilationist, hawk-Israeli and dove-Israeli versions of Jewish destiny. He gives everyone a lively and unanswerable truth.

Arguing with Henry and Mordecai--whose abstract extremism shows how close they are to the Palestinians they are fighting--Zuckerman is wondrously, blessedly at a loss for words. At that point, he is a troubled assimilationist. Later, in England, he will be--or seem to be--something else.


With Maria, Roth is on more difficult ground. She is not only Wasp but English, with qualities of reserve and of elusiveness that Zuckerman can mistake for obtuseness, superficiality or lack of passion. Unlike him, she does not believe that everything that is felt should be expressed. Their struggle takes place over his contention that the traces of anti-Semitism he finds in her family and in English society mean that he must henceforth identify himself wholly as a Jew and that she must accept that as the primary axis of their relationship.

Maria seems unsubstantial at first. She grows splendidly real in arguing with Zuckerman, in pointing out his own intolerance. Why, she asks, is it unacceptable for their child, still unborn, to be baptized, but essential that, if a boy, he be circumcised? Isn’t a mixed marriage mixed?

It is one of Roth’s many shining acts of intelligence to have Maria reflect, later, that in meeting Zuckerman’s arguments so powerfully, she has, in fact, become his creature. It is not in her character to press a point home with such force; it is in Zuckerman’s character.

But the latter’s power is also his dreadful limitation. In his sense of beleaguerment as writer and Jew, he does not merely decree that whoever is not with him should be against him. His requirement states: “Whoever is not me is against me.”

This is the link between Zuckerman’s unappeased nature and his writer’s nature. Roth uses him to explore and expound a particular concept of authorship, and it is a desolate one.

Zuckerman the author is not merely God with his Creation. He is God so threatened by his Creation that, having made it, he will not allow it to exist. He will never fall into Cervantes’ trap of creating a Don Quixote that will eclipse him, or Shakespeare’s of creating a Lear, a Cleopatra, a Falstaff that will live after he dies.

Maria, Henry, Mordecai and even Zuckerman himself--as character--have a reality that powerfully entices us. And as we reach to grasp it, Zuckerman--the author--yanks it away. They are real, they are not real, they are alive, they are dead: Never mind.


For all his advantage, an author expends his omnipotence and defines and limits himself in some fashion by what he writes. Zuckerman, at the end of this series of splendid illusions, refuses to relinquish his characters into life. He reabsorbs them, and there he is on stage, ready for more.

And Roth? Is he ready for more? He takes pains to declare, through Maria, that only bad critics will confuse protagonist with the author.

As a partly bad critic, then, let me suggest that the identification is partly inevitable and, as a whole, would be foolish. Roth is perfectly free to go on to write a detective story or a musical comedy. But so, for that matter, is Zuckerman.

There is no help for it. The suspicion will always arise that Roth is Zuckerman’s own ghost writer. Meanwhile, an author--call him Zuckerman or Zuckerman/Roth--who does not release his characters is bound to be identified with them.

“Our revels now are ended,” Prospero declares, stepping away from his creation. He binds himself by its rules. Zuckerman does not. I’m not sure about Roth.