Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound

The cover of this book is beautiful to me, recalling Soviet graphic design. It looks like a radical book urging revolution, passed person to person. It is an old cover, designed in a way that books aren't anymore, now all of Roth's books having a fairly uniform cover design. I found this copy at the Strand for $4.50 and that equals something close to $1.12 per novel, Zuckerman Bound containing the early Nathan Zuckerman books: The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy.

Zuckerman was originally introduced in My Life as a Man, in which he served as the fictional alter-ego of the narrator of that book, Peter Tarnapol, a writer who served as the fictional alter-ego of Philip Roth. He is slightly different in that novel then he becomes with his reintroduction in The Ghost Writer, becoming at that point the constant alter-ego of Roth, allowing him to hit meta-fictional themes and examine the relationship between fiction and life, between representation and the thing represented.

The Ghost Writer has Zuckerman, a young writer of 23, traveling up to the Berkshires to meet his idol, E.I. Lonoff. It is a brief novel documenting his overnight stay at his house and introduces themes that Roth will work and rework again and again throughout his career and throughout the Nathan Zuckerman books. Lonoff lives in seclusion, a respected elder and literary heavyweight, a person that Zuckerman in his novice stage seems to hope to one day become (and which eventually he does, in later novels Zuckerman having also retreated to the Berkshires for seclusion). Lonoff's fictions, slices of Jewish life, bear no resemblance to his current life, surrounded by Gentiles up in the mountains of New England and this is something that Zuckerman remarks upon. Zuckerman, in contrast, bases his fiction on his life (much like Roth with Zuckerman), airing his dirty laundry in public, much to the dismay of his family. Zuckerman's father does not understand Nathan's artistic practices, does not understand why he can't show the good side of Jewish life and is upset about how non-Jews will read these fictions about perhaps unlikable Jews. Zuckerman though is resolute in what he considers his art, that the pain other people may endure because of things you say are necessary. For such a short novel, there is so much packed in here to parse out. The mythology of Nathan Zuckerman, his cosmos, is all here. There is also a wonderful scene in which Zuckerman imagines that Lonoff's boarder, Amy Bellette, a young woman Lonoff is having an affair with, is Anne Frank. He imagines falling in love with Bellette/Frank and that once his parents and other respectable Jews hear that he is married to Anne Frank they will no longer think of him as a self-hating Jew and will respect his fiction.

Zuckerman is witness during this brief stay to some episodes of domestic tension between Lonoff and his wife, Hope, because of the presence of Amy. The novel ends with Lonoff running outside down the street after his wife, who has stormed out of the house, declaring that she was leaving. Before leaving the house to chase after his wife, Lonoff, aware of Zuckerman's method of writing, of using life (perhaps in its ugliness) as fodder for his fiction, tells Zuckerman that there is paper on his desk, that surely he has stuff to write down. Zuckerman responds, "Paper for what?" Lonoff: "Your feverish notes. . . You had an earful this morning." After a bit more conversation as he is getting bundled up to go out into the cold after his wife, there is this exchange, which is a coda to Roth and to Zuckerman and to what writing means to them:

"I'll be curious to see how we all come out someday. It could be an interesting story. You're not so nice and polite in your fiction," he said. "You're a different person."

"Am I?"

"I should hope so." Then, as though having concluded my rites of confirmation, he gravely shook my hand.

Zuckerman Unbound picks up some years later, Zuckerman now a famous writer, notorious even, after the successful publication of Carnovsky, an obvious allusion to Roth's own notoriety after Portnoy's Complaint. He lives in New York and gets hate mail from crackpots and accosted on the street, all of it making him a bit paranoid. One of the characters who accosts him on the street is Alvin Pepler, a former quiz show contestant, who still decades after the fact is nursing a grudge against how he was wronged on that quiz show, how he knows everything, and will start to recite random facts to Zuckerman, who is both intrigued and disturbed by this man and a bit convinced that this is the man that has been calling him and threatening to kidnap his mother in Miami, his mother who is going through traumatic times of her own, everyone around her, as well as the press, assuming that she is the mother depicted in Carnovsky. Eventually Pepler declares that Carnovsky is his book, is his story, that he is the perpetual masturbator of Newark, and that Zuckerman has stolen his story. These concerns of meta-fiction and the nature of authorship could be a bit tiring in someone else's hands, but with Roth it rolls along with his humor, with his intelligent voice, perhaps the most readable voice writing now.

The book, concerned with literary celebrity, with readers unable to read or misreading your work, with the absurdity of American culture, comes back down to earth with the death of Zuckerman's father, and for a brief while Zuckerman is grounded in something other than his crazy concerns about kidnappers and hate mail and mentally unstable ex-quiz show contestants.

This scene, from his father's funeral, upon rereading it now doesn't seem as amazing, but at the time, wrapped up in this narrative, it punched me right in the gut and made me start to cry, something that I can't think of the last time a book has made me do, and despite it not seeming as amazing now, perhaps it will to be at some future date, and for that future date, here it is:

Strange. It was supposed to be just the opposite. But never had he contemplated his father's life with less sentiment. It was as though they were burying the father of some other sons. As for the character being depicted by the rabbi, well, nobody had ever gotten Dr. Zuckerman so wrong. Maybe the rabbi was only trying to distance him from the father in Carnovsky, but from the portrait he painted you would have thought Dr. Zuckerman was Schweitzer. All that was missing was the organ and the lepers. But why not? Whom did it harm? It was a funeral, not a novel, let alone the Last Judgment.

What made it such a strain? Aside from the unrelenting heat and their lost, defenseless, seemingly legless mother? Aside from the pitiful sight of those old family friends, looking down into the slot where they too must be deposited, thirty, sixty, ninety days hence - the kibitzing giants out of his earliest memories, so frail now, some of them, that despite the healthy suntans, you could have pushed them in with his father and they couldn't have crawled out. . . ? Aside from all this, there were his emotions. The strain of feeling no grief. The surprise. The shame. The exultation. The shame of that. But all that grieving over his father's body had taken place when Nathan was twelve and fifteen and twenty-one: the grief over all his father had been dead to while living. From that grief the death was a release.

He flies back to New York through Newark, having a driver meet him there and drive him around places from his childhood that have been brought forth in his memories by attending his father's funeral. Early in the novel, Pepler refers to Zuckerman as the Proust of Newark, but this is before he turns on Zuckerman, eventually telling him that he doesn't know what Newark is, saying, "Newark! What do you know about Newark, Mama's Boy! I read that fucking book! To you it's Sunday chop suey downtown at the Chink's! ... To you it's Uncle Max in his undershirt, watering the radishes at night! ... Newark is a nigger with a knife! Newark is a whore with the syph! Newark is junkies shitting in your hallway and everything burned to the ground! Newark is dago vigilantes hunting jigs with tire irons! Newark is bankruptcy! Newark is ashes! Newark is rubble and filth! Own a car in Newark and then you'll find out what Newark's all about! Then you can write ten books about Newark! They slit your throat for your radial tires!"

Being driven around Newark now by a hired driver in a limo, he sees that Pepler was right, that the Newark he had captured in fiction, the place of his childhood, is gone, that all of the Jewish families had moved to the suburbs, that the city was now mainly black, that the row of shops was gone, that the apartment his family had lived in his young days was now with a boarded up door and broken windows. And again there is this theme, now with a tinge of melancholy, about life and fiction, about how places can be written about that don't exist anymore, about how fathers can be dead and yet still be written about, that seemingly things can be reincarnated, brought back to life, by fiction, but with Zuckerman's drive through a burned out Newark, that is questioned; reality seems to win that arm wrestling match.

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