Sunday, February 3, 2008

Philip Roth's Zuckerman Novels

Among my many 2008 New Year's resolutions was to finish reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Praise of Slowness. To that goal I added reading all nine of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman novels. I can’t say what prompted me to do this. Probably all the fuss over the recent publication of Exit Ghost(the ninth novel); and I wanted to see what a novelist could do with a character and storyline over the course of many years. Also, I enjoyed the first Zuckerman novel: The Ghost Writer. It is a writer's novel, with its highlights being those moments that turn the spyglass on the process of writing. I read the following passage half a dozen times, simply because at its fundamental level, it touches on something true in most writers.

In it, the famous, reclusive novelist Lonoff says to Zuckerman:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste ... I sit back down at my little Olivetti and start looking at sentences and turning them around. And I ask myself, Why is there no other way but this for me to fill my hours?

In The Ghost Writer, aspiring novelist-to-be Nathan Zuckerman has the chance to visit his idol, the critically acclaimed novelist E. I. Lonoff, at Lonoff’s home in rural New England. Over the course of twenty-four hours, there is plenty of talk about what it means (and entails) to be a writer, a few intense interactions between Lonoff and his wife Hope, and a more than intense reverie on young Nathan’s part.

In an elaborate daydream (in the middle of the night), Nathan imagines that Amy—a college student who is helping Lonoff organize his writings for donation to a university library—is Anne Frank; Anne did not die in the camps, but is alive and hiding in America. Is this romantic notion a sentimentalist’s wish for Anne not to have suffered such a tragic fate? Of course not. This is a Philip Roth novel. If Anne is alive, it would be so that Nathan could marry her, bring her out of hiding, and therefore redeem himself with his Jewish family, whom he has offended with a story based on a great aunt and her fatherless grandsons, a story that Nathan’s father believes tarnishes not only the family name, but Jews as a race.

The writerly side note to this fantasy comes when Nathan learns what Amy really is—a lovestruck young woman who wants Lonoff to run away with her to Italy. For complex reasons you need to discover for yourself, Lonoff won’t. Upon learning this, Nathan thinks:

Soundlessly as I could, I slipped down from the desk and made my way on my toes to the daybed, where, from the sheer physical effort that had gone into my acrobatic eavesdropping, I collapsed. My astonishment at what I’d overheard, my shame at the unpardonable breach of his trust, my relief at having escaped undiscovered---all that turned out to be nothing, really, beside the frustration I soon began to feel over the thinness of my imagination and what that promised for the future ... Oh, if only I could invent as presumptuously as real life! If one day I could just approach the originality and excitement of what actually goes on!

Nathan truly embodies the saying: “Enough about you, let’s talk about me.”

By the second novel, Zuckerman Unbound, the main character has evolved into an excruciatingly famous novelist in his thirties, dealing with a fling with a starlet who leaves him for Castro, a dying father whom he has not reconciled with, and the notoriety (and creepy fans and detractors) that have come with the recent publication of Carnovsky, which I am told is based on Portnoy's Complaint. I really wanted to like this novel. I really wanted to be drawn deeper into the character introduced in The Ghost Writer. Instead, I was bored. And I was constantly distracted. While reading about Campbell’s Funeral Home, across the street from Zuckerman’s apartment, my mind began to drift … Isn’t that the same place that Heath Ledger’s body was taken … what a tragedy … so young, and with a daughter … Novels are supposed to help you forget about reality, not fling you haphazardly out into it.

I didn’t know where to focus. I got confused by Pepler, a sort of stalker. I found myself reading solely for the occasional gems, such as this observation Zuckerman makes about his starlet: He was thinking of Caesara starting at nineteen as the enchanting Anne Frank, and of the photographs of film stars like the enchanting Caesara which Anne Frank pinned up beside that attic bed. That Anne Frank should come to him in this guise. Here we go, I thought, now I’m going to see how that young man who fantasized Anne Frank back to life has become a middle-aged man sleeping with starlets. But no.

At another point, Zuckerman is reading a book that belongs to Caesara, and he comes across a passage she has underlined. He asks her what else she has underlined, and she replies, What everybody underlines … everything that says ‘me.’

While this is true, I love it when novels speak to me, when they touch on the core of my experiences, when they give voice to my thoughts, I also love novels that tell interesting stories about interesting characters. This one didn’t. So, am I going to read the third, The Anatomy Lesson? I’m still intrigued, but I can’t make any promises. And if I don’t? I doubt I’ll be the first person to break her New Year’s resolutions this year.