Zuckerman Unbound – Philip Roth

27 February 2012
Chapters 1, 2 and part of 3
‘I prefer my exhibitionism at several removes.’ This is Zuckerman speaking but, we can’t help remembering as we read this endlessly self-referential novel, it’s Roth writing it. Carnovski is the main protagonist of the hugely successful novel that has shot Zuckerman to fame in 1969 – i.e. the same year that Portnoy’s Complaint did the same for Roth – and the hapless Zuckerman is tired of insisting that he is not an alter-ego. No, the novel isn’t a confession and no, his early life was not like that of his protagonist…. However, he has trouble making long-term relationships, has reached the end of his third marriage while still in his thirties. I’m assuming this is Roth writing about what he knows, and not being too hard on himself.

How far can you go with this conceit? Roth decides he can go all the way, daring his readers to make the same mistake as the idiots who accost him on the street – or anywhere else – and who draw no distinction between writer and his fictional creation. Perhaps if I had been a Philip Roth fan in 1981, when this was published, and was in on the cult of literary celebrity at the time on the East Coast of America – the cult Roth is sending up – then I might be more interested. But I’m not, and… what did I write about The Ghost Writer, the first of the Zuckerman novels, when our boy was even more of an ingénue than he is now? Hang on. It’s ‘full of that cocksureness and the self-referencing details I so often find off-putting in mid-20th Century US writers. The Manhattan and New Jersey that Zuckerman describes, the Jewish family histories, the confident womanising…. How bothered am I?’

But that’s enough about me.

One of the themes of The Ghost Writer is to do with how Zuckerman is more or less forced to exploit the endless riches of his Jewish upbringing because, without fail, it’s always better than anything he could make up. Now, two years after the publication of that novel, here is Roth doing exactly that. I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that Roth really was buttonholed by Herb Stempel, the model for the fictional Alvin Pepler – but he offers Roth a ready-made archetype, or stereotype, of the needy no-hoper who insists that a shared background confers an obligation to be sympathetic. The long scene in which Zuckerman simply can’t get away from Pepler (based on the man who was forced to throw the 1950s quiz show that later became the subject of a film) is one of the best in the book so far. You want fame? Be careful what you wish for.

That’s what the book is about: the absurdities of living in a goldfish-bowl once your face has been on the cover of Life magazine. A lot of it consists of encounters, not necessarily in chronological order, from the appalled bus passenger who can’t believe anyone with a million-dollar book deal wouldn’t be taking a taxi to the 30-something movie star who decides he’s famous enough to take her to bed. This being the novel it is, I can’t help wondering who she’s based on… and I might get back to her, because she’s more interesting than I’ve made her sound. And when we haven’t got encounters we’ve got stories. There are family stories – as in The Ghost Writer, often about the effect Zuckerman’s published writings have on his parents and, inevitably (sigh), how this reverberates around the stiflingly Jewish community – and there are back stories to do with how a writer who only ever wanted to be taken seriously has ended up writing a frankly sensational novel. And, inevitably (sigh), how this reverberates around the stiflingly Jewish community he tried to leave 20 years ago. As if.

It’s mostly clever and nearly always entertaining, like a middle-period Woody Allen film. Meanwhile, Roth would hate us not to recognise a serious purpose as well: there’s philosophy – what has Caesara O’Shea, the film star, got on her coffee table ready to impress Zuckerman? Kierkegaard, is it? And that riff of his – Kierkegaard’s – on fame and the ageing actress strikes a chord with our man: he’s so involved in reading it he nearly forgets what he’s gone back to her penthouse suite for. Caesara is a kind of warning: she’s utterly self-absorbed, which is nothing new for Zuckerman, but she’s also manipulative and terribly damaged. She’s been famous since her teens – she was the one playing Anne Frank on Broadway in the 50s, so at last – see The Ghost Writer – Zuckerman has slept with this 20th Century icon. But he hasn’t really, of course. Roth has fired off another round in the direction of that particular sacred Jewish cow. That’s what he does, all the time and almost indiscriminately.

What’s happening now? He’s following his agent’s advice and getting himself a set of new suits to match his new status as rich man. He’s getting crank letters, usually from people as needy as Alvin, and in them Roth satirises the corniness of responses to his own books. And he’s getting worrying phone calls from a man who he hopes is just a joker, but who threatens to kidnap his mother. Chapter 3 opens with a long riff on death and the famous – he lives opposite the undertakers who offer their services to New York’s entertainers and mobsters. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity…. What was I saying about serious?

28 February
The rest of Chapter 3
Roth gives us more of Alvin Pepler – and why wouldn’t he when he’s the most entertaining thing in the book? I’d forgotten to mention that Zuckerman suspects him of making the crank kidnapping calls, but… but he turns out to be a lot more besides. Zuckerman meets him outside the funeral parlour where various celebs are gathering for the latest mob send-off and, despite his suspicions, Zuckerman can’t help being carried along by his spiel. Just before this, he’s been quoting Flaubert in justification of his own exploitation of real life events – ‘le vrai’, he’s taken to calling it, in a mock-serious tone to hide his seriousness – and now here he is being ambushed by a living, breathing character. The spiel consists first of prodigious and pointless feats of memory – hit songs of 1950, or any other year you care to mention – but morphs into something else.

What else, exactly? Why has Roth dedicated something like a third of the novel so far to this ridiculous man? Pepler is writing a book, inevitably – you can guess how many aspiring writers Zuckerman has had to put up with – and it’s about how the quiz show scams of the 50s represent everything that has gone wrong with America. He’s a paid up subscriber to the Jewish branch of the American Dream, a clownish Jewish Everyman spouting the sort of stuff you expect from comedy Jewish losers: there always has to be a reason why he didn’t make it, usually a conspiracy.

But, slowly, Roth ups the stakes. Zuckerman has discovered that all the people Pepler keeps talking about – the big agent who is going to turn his story in to a musical and his band of hangers-on – don’t actually exist And Pepler might not be as harmless as he seems, because – wait for it – he is convinced that Zuckerman stole his life story in creating Carnovsky. Meanwhile, it’s as though Pepler is writing his own life as he goes along, like – like Zuckerman himself, perhaps. We’re starting to get wheels within wheels here. One of the points about Pepler is that he’s a highly recognisable Jewish type – aspirational, full of anger at how the dead hand of anti-Semitism has constantly brought him down – and this is the man whose life Zuckerman has stolen. More than that: Pepler thinks that the novel is essentially his, that he and Zuckerman are interchangeable. Here is Roth, confirming what we’ve suspected: in order to strike the right note of authenticity, novels like Zuckerman’s have to be full of all those recognisable things that novels like Roth’s are full of. The self-examination is beginning to drive me nuts. But then, Pepler is driving Zuckerman nuts, so maybe that’s ok.

Other stuff is carrying on from earlier chapters. In the tabloids, gossip based on rumours is presented as truth, so Zuckerman is constantly finding out that he’s doing things he obviously isn’t: he and Caesara are an item (in fact she’s having an affair with Fidel Castro); he’s in Europe, he’s… he’s whatever they want to make him. Yeh, got it. And near the end of the chapter he fills in details about the end of the marriage to the saintly Laura. She isn’t returning his calls, so in his head he re-runs their last conversation, in which she describes perfectly the self-deceiving game he’s playing. He needed to end it with her, but hasn’t found anything better yet, that’s all. When he goes back to the old apartment, determined to patch things up, he finds a sleeping bag in what had been his study. It seems to belong to another priest and, he assumes, another of the serial victims she spends her life fighting for.

It’s self-dramatising in that way that is supposed to seem self-mocking: who among his writer friends would want to listen to the problems his fame and success have brought him? The point, of course, is that the whole novel is exactly this. And… one of the problems is that he’s brought trouble to his family again. When he learns he has a phone message from Miami, where his parents now live, he beats himself up about how his poor mother doesn’t deserve to be kidnapped. Regrettably, he doesn’t beat himself unconscious, so we get the obligatory stories about the hardships of her life, like the illness and death of her promising sister Celia years ago…. We’ve already guessed that the call is really about his ailing father’s worsening health.

Are we nearly there yet?

1 March
Chapter 4 – to the end
It carries on, except everything we’ve come up against in the first three chapters is now shoehorned into the context of the death of Zuckerman’s father. What is it about American men and fathers? This is something I’ve often asked, and instead of supplying us with any answers, Roth only asks more questions. Like, why is a man in his late 40s – i.e. Roth – still going on and on about the influence of the man who, for his protagonist, represents ‘the Jewish slice of American piety’? Zuckerman has been kicking against his father for 30 years. The old man might have right on his side as he fires off raging letters to the president against the Vietnam War, but he’s otherwise deeply conventional and tiresomely opinionated in ways, inevitably, that we recognise. What is there for the clever son not to scorn?

Zuckerman isn’t going to let a little thing like the old man’s death change anything. He isn’t surprised when his father’s last word, spoken directly to him, is ‘Bastard,’ and is hardly worried at all that he doesn’t feel any grief. As I’ve said before, he’s a kind of ingénue and doesn’t know what monsters will turn round to bite him after some time has passed. Later Henry, Zuckerman’s younger brother and keeper of the flame – his life is the epitome of all his father’s conventional aspirations – confirms that, yes, the old man meant what he said: he always hated his writing and the Carnovsky book finished him off. Back from Miami, Zuckerman visits the old neighbourhood in Newark. A black man in his old building is suspicious of this rich white man and asks him who he is. Nobody, he says, and Roth tries to convince us that he means it. There’s nothing like a bit of existential angst to show how serious you are.


Can I be quick with this now? I’d planned to read the next novel in the series, but this one’s driving me nuts again. During this chapter Roth finishes off the Pepler thread. As if. What he actually does is continue worrying away at it. In Chapter 3, I mentioned wheels within wheels. Try this from our man, trying to come to terms with what’s going on in this chapter: ‘would Zuckerman’s imagination beget still other Peplers conjuring up novels out of his, disguising themselves as actuality itself, as nothing less than real?’ In other words, we’re to doubt just about everything. Not only is Carnovsky not Zuckerman, not only is Zuckerman not Roth, not only is Pepler none of these – but Pepler is nothing but a literary construct anyway. So now we’ve got post-modernism elbowing its way in. Give me strength.

From where I’m standing it looks as though Roth uses the absurdity of his eternally adolescent alter-ego to go over a lot of old ground. Victor, Zuckerman’s father, is another type that we’ve met a million times before, as is just about everyone else in the extended family. There’s the opinionated aunt who never shuts up, her long-suffering, rather kind-hearted husband, the brother who has always done what his parents would hope. (Henry’s sole attempt at rebellion after a year of college is strangled at birth – Zuckerman himself helps to strangle it – and he sleepwalks into a dull marriage through sheer cowardice. It’s easy to see why he hates Zuckerman.) What we appear to have learnt by the end of the book is that Zuckerman, who hadn’t got his relationship with them and his Jewishness sorted out in his early 20s in The Ghost Writer, still hasn’t in his mid-30s in this novel. Shall I bother to read the next one? One thing is certain about it: he still won’t be getting anything right.


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