With every action, no matter how banal, with each passing second of your life, you make yourself, your world, your future. Many people live with a sense of restriction, or limitation, and yet human life is limitless, at least in theory, is capable of going in an infinite number of directions. If you think about how you found yourself in whatever situation you are currently in, even if that is sitting on your arse in front on your computer reading this review. A whole shit-tonne of stuff had to happen, a shit-tonne of other possible lives were discarded [consciously or unconsciously], for you to end up there. Multiple lives. We shed lives like a cat sheds fur; it just happens, we can’t control it. In a way, it’s a huge tragedy, because who knows how incredible some of those lives might have been, how much more successful, rich, or cool those alternate yous. Shit, at least one of them would be getting laid right now, not reading a book review.
I find this kind of thing fascinating, and so, if The Counterlife is anything to go by, does Philip Roth, because it is a book that is, structurally and philosophically, concerned with the idea of alternate, or multiple, lives. However, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a kind of sci-fi novel, that Roth is interested in exploring the concept of potential or parallel universes. He is more concerned with personal identity and what it means to be you, and how people re-create themselves, how people create each other and how novelists create their worlds, their work. Roth uses all of the characters in the book to explore these ideas [and others], but focuses, most of all, on two brothers: Nathan and Henry Zuckerman. Roth aks, what does it mean to be Henry Zuckerman or Nathan Zuckerman; what does it mean to be a husband, a father, a man, a writer, a Jew?
The book is split into five parts, each of which deals, in principle, with a different Henry Zuckerman and Nathan Zuckerman, different lives that they might have led [and, at times, their resulting deaths], different roles they may have played, based on the choices they made. In part one Henry has a heart problem and dies after surgery, in part two he survives and moves to Israel, in part three that story is continued briefly, in part four is it Nathan who has the heart problem and dies, and, to complete the cycle, in part five he is healthy and moves to England. I feel fine with revealing each part’s basic action to you, because this isn’t a normal novel, it does not tell a story from start to finish – The Counterlife is, essentially, what we call a novel-of-ideas – so there is, really, nothing to spoil, plot-wise. However, there is a framing story or concept, one that ties all the separate parts together, which is revealed in part four. I’ve tried as much as possible in this review to write about the book, and the individual sections I focus on, in such a way as to avoid compromising your experience, to prevent you from missing out on the ah, now I get it moment.
Of the five sections the first two are the best, and yet they are the ones that you could say contain the customary Rothian shortcomings. Part one is certainly the funniest as it deals with Henry’s anguish at not being able to get a hard on. Yeah, I know you might think that it can’t possibly be all that funny, that Roth must surely be all out of good cock jokes by this point in his career, but trust me it is and he isn’t. My favourite passage is when Nathan is said to be haunted by the thought of erect dicks, and Roth describes how he fantasises not only about his girlfriend sucking off huge dongs, but himself as well. Seriously, I lolled for a good thirty seconds. Having said that, I would also say that part one is the most moving. This Henry is just an average schmo, who lacks imagination and guts. In a way, he is a proto Swede Levov, a conventional man whose comfortable, button-down existence starts to come apart. The crucial difference is that it is Henry who is responsible for what befalls him. What I found moving about it is that Henry takes little stabs, little prods, at changing his life, at escaping what he feels is a humdrum unhappy existence, but he can’t quite manage it, psychologically he just isn’t equipped for such a manoeuvre. So, instead of leaving for Switzerland with a woman he loves, he ends up taking on a drab young American dental assistant as a lover, as a kind of compromise. This what I mean about a lack of guts and imagination, he knows what he wants and what will make him happy but plumps instead for a clichéd all-American, middle class, version of rebellion, of infidelity. The upshot of not being able to take the plunge, of not being able to make the change, to recreate himself, is that he loses his mind.
However, part one does suffer from some of the problems that tend to plague Roth’s sexually-focussed work [like, for example, the half peerless genius-half fucking stupid and cringey Sabbath’s Theater]. Roth is capable of impressive writing about sex, mostly when he is being funny, and yet he is also frequently a terrible writer about sex. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing [because the kind of sex writing I hate does seem to come from authors who started publishing around the late 60’s], but some of the passages in Part one make me want to murder something, passages such as when Henry tells his lover after they have had anal sex that this now means that they are married. Yeah, you read that right: anal sex marries them. Like, spiritually or some shit. My face also pulled some unpleasant expressions when reading the scene where Henry’s wife turns up to meet him in public wearing a big coat, while underneath she is dolled up in suspenders and flashy knickers. It’s essentially a lame middle-age-fantasy cliche; surely no one ever actually does that? Nor do women, and believe me I have had a lot of dumb crap said to me during sex [and have said loads myself, no doubt], say things like it’s been years since you’ve fucked me like a woman. When I read stuff like that I do genuinely start to wonder if the author has ever actually fucked a woman in his life.
Part two I found exhilarating, but, I imagine, it is perhaps where some readers may lose heart, or at least their enthusiasm for the book. Your enjoyment of Part two probably rests on how interested you are in politics, particularly the Jewish-Muslim conflict, and whether you find enthralling racial/religious philosophy. Of course, I’m not talking about the rigorous philosophy you would find in a text book, or even a novel like The Man Without Qualities, but, still, Roth does spend pages and pages discussing and debating Jewish identity and responsibility. As with The Ghost Writer, the question what does it mean to be Jewish? is centre stage. Following successful surgery this Henry has moved to Israel and has joined a group of militant Jews, who believe that it is one’s duty as a Jew to return to and fight for one’s homeland. Nathan, [the narrator] on the other hand, is a fully assimilated American, who feels no pull from Judea and is fully opposed to, what he sees as, religious or political fanaticism; so, the intellectual fireworks, the tension, is created by these two opposing viewpoints and lifestyles coming together, butting heads.
As already noted, The Counterlife is on one level a book about writing, about how authors create characters, and how they can mould them and use them in different ways. If you’ve read any of Roth’s Zuckerman novels you’ll know that Nathan is meant to have written a novel, Carnovsky, that led to him being estranged from his family; he is a writer who used his own family in order to create, and it cost him. Throughout The Counterlife we are part of, have access to, Nathan’s [and Roth’s] process as a writer. In the opening section we are actually shown some of his notes, notes relating to Henry, that Nathan talks about having written in order to use for a novel. So, we have Nathan, the man who wrote a controversial book about his family, writing a book about his family [his brother], using his brother for his fiction. We also have Roth, a genuine, real life, author, writing about an author writing about the authorial creative process. Furthermore, Roth and Zuckerman, it’s safe to say, share certain biographical details; their stories, their lives, their personalities, are similar. Meta shenanigans everywhere!
However, although I found all that stuff fun enough, I would have enjoyed the book just as much without it. I was far more taken with what Roth had to say about his characters, and by extension humanity itself. Yes, The Counterlife explores a lot of issues, such as masculinity, family, religion, and so on, but I was particularly interested in the theme of escape, which runs through all the stories. The main characters, in [almost] all their incarnations, are trying to escape from themselves and their lives. They are all striving to be other, to be someone or something else. This is where the meta aspect of the novel really impressed me, because The Counterlife shows us different, alternate lives, and yet in these lives all of the main characters want to escape into something else. That’s a powerful, perhaps depressing, message: that we are never wholly satisfied with our lot, regardless of the life we are living, that we are always either in flight or fantasising about flight. And yet, I don’t think that is what Roth wanted us to take away from the book, or it certainly isn’t the message that I took away from the book. There’s a line on page 239 in my vintage copy that I felt went some way to summing how I saw The Counterlife, what most resonated with me:
Anyone can run away and survive, the trick was to stay and survive.
One last thing: I pretty much detested part five of this book, the part set in England. I haven’t included this in the review because, well, maybe it is simply native touchiness. However, I think it is fair to say that Roth approaches England and the English like a Simpsons on holiday episode i.e. he throws in just about every cultural, national cliche he can come up with. My dear Philip, being English does not mean reading Jane Austen, talking about furniture, eating bland food, an obsession with class and status, and off-the-cuff, well-articulated racism. One might say that it is not Roth, but Nathan who sees the English in this way, and that’s fine, but it’s still rubbish and not engaging to read. Furthermore, Roth can pull a lot of things off, but star-crossed lovers isn’t one of them.