Philip Roth in Israel

Julian Barnes

  • The Counterlife by Philip Roth
    Cape, 336 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 224 02871 5

Philip Roth’s new novel is marvellously rich, boisterously serious, dense, fizzing and formally audacious. More than with most novels, to review it is to betray it. This isn’t inappropriate, since one of Roth’s abiding themes is fiction’s betrayal of life and the novelist’s treachery to those who surround him. But prudent readers may prefer not to discover The Counterlifes intricate surprises in advance.

The novel’s main character – need you be told? – is Nathan Zuckerman, whose reputed similarities to Roth himself have already been amply described. I remember my English master, twenty-five years ago, asking our class provokingly, ‘But what happens when Ted Hughes runs out of animals?’, and even among devoted Rothites there has been a tendency over the last couple of novels to greet Nathan’s regular reappearance with a mild resignation bordering on surliness. But he’s still there, abuzz with his old obsessions, keen to update us on his life again: and such indomitability has its charm. ‘Nathan, why are you still hanging around?’ gives way to ‘Hi, Nathan, how ya doin’?’

He’s doing, at the start of the novel, much as before, wranglingly embroiled with his Jewish family and wranglingly embroiled with the fiction he finds therein: back at his old trade of ‘exploiting and distorting family secrets’, as his dentist brother Henry puts it. Henry – at least in Nathan’s account of him – is normality personified: his successful New Jersey life includes a perfect family and a satisfactory mistress in Wendy – ‘a nice kid with an oral hang-up who he’s pretty sure will never phone the house’. Henry and Wendy, amongst their erotic sport, play not at Doctor and Nurse but at that less familiar variant, Dentist and Assistant. ‘ “But I am the assistant,” Wendy said. “I know,” he replied, “and I’m the dentist – but pretend anyway.” ’

The only abnormal thing about Henry is a sudden heart condition and its grim consequences: the drugs needed to control it tamp him down into impotence. A bypass operation might free him from a lifetime of being unmanned: on the other hand, it might kill him. Henry, mourning his daily adultery, takes the gamble – and expires; he was (Roth heroically holds back the tempting jest for two hundred pages, when it takes on extra force) ‘dying to get laid’. His death and funeral provide Nathan – reluctant repository of his brother’s secrets – with the typical temptation of further, final betrayal, and the typical observation that writing spoils living: ‘This profession even fucks up grief.’ It provides Roth – who has shown before how immaculately he can juggle irony, poignancy and roaring comedy at a good funeral – with his opening frieze of American-Jewish life. The mourners gather: from brave wife to Neanderthal uncle-in-law, from plain-speaking Cousin Essie to Barry Shuskin the cryonics bore.

Cryonics: that is the tip-off. In one view of the world, Henry might die and go to heaven. In Barry Shuskin’s view of the world, Henry might ‘die’, spend a purgatorial period in an aluminium tube surrounded by liquid nitrogen, and go to a future where his heart condition can be safely cured. Roth offers a third possibility, a third destination. The novelist claims his right to interfere in deaths alongside the theologian and the quack scientist. Henry dies – and goes to Israel.

The first hint that something is up, formally, is at the beginning of this second part: not in Henry’s apparent resurrection (concealed for a few pages), but in the switch from third to first person. What’s behind that, you wonder, as Nathan steps out of the New Jersey frieze and, coming closer, speaks to us directly. The initial solution to suggest itself is that first rather than third person is a better way of ‘doing’ Israel. As anyone who has ever been there will know, Israel is a very noisy place. It’s like adding a couple of extra speakers to your stereo and ending up with quadrophony: you frequently find yourself getting it in the back of the neck. Israel is a country with no small talk, only argument, where Western manners are treated as effete and evasive, where you are constantly reminded that you are witnessing History Now. Using the first person thrusts us more committedly into the babble and rage of Israel: we link arms with Nathan and get it in the neck at the same time as he does. Later – much later – in the book a more obvious reason for the formal switch becomes clear: that this section (along with others) is a different type of narrative – a section from Nathan Zuckerman’s latest novel. But perhaps this second reason doesn’t rule out the first.

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