Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: Philip Roth-“Portnoy’s Complaint,” (1969) “Zuckerman Unbound,” (1981) and “The Facts” (1988)

The iconic cover of "Portnoy's Complaint," by Philip Roth, 1969.

"Zuckerman Unbound," by Philip Roth, 1981.

"The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography," by Philip Roth, 1988.

Philip Roth, 1969.
Philip Roth’s best-selling 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” was a breakthrough for Roth as an author. The book shocked readers for its crude language and its unvarnished depiction of sexual behavior. It became a huge best-seller and thrust Roth onto the national spotlight. Roth fictionalized some of the craziness surrounding “Portnoy’s” success in his 1981 novel “Zuckerman Unbound,” featuring his alter-ego author Nathan Zuckerman. Roth later wrote about the time period that inspired the creation of “Portnoy’s Complaint” in his 1988 non-fiction book “The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography.” This essay will examine some of the themes in all three books, such as the blurring between fact and fiction that Roth constantly engages in. 

“Portnoy’s Complaint” takes the form of a very long comedic psychoanalytic monologue between patient Alexander Portnoy, and his analyst, Doctor Spielvogel, who is unheard from until the last line of the book. It’s a marvelously funny book, as Roth channels the beleaguered Portnoy and tracks his sexual obsessions. The book is all about voice and tone. Roth knew that by using the psychoanalytic monologue as a framing device for Portnoy to tell his story it would free Roth to be as uninhibited on the page as he wanted to be.

Portnoy is a well-behaved Jewish boy growing up in Newark in the 1940’s and 50’s. Portnoy obeys his parents, even though he feels overly stifled by them, even as an adult. Portnoy says in exasperation, “Good Christ, a Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die!” (P. 110) Portnoy is a gifted student, and he eventually becomes a lawyer. As Portnoy becomes an adolescent, he discovers the pleasures of masturbation, and quickly becomes addicted to it. Much of the book deals with his feelings toward his parents and his feelings about sex.

Portnoy can’t reconcile being a nice person with also having a sex life. He’s constantly wracked with guilt, and he constantly imagines what awful things will happen if someone, anyone, finds out about his sexual cravings. An ongoing joke in the book is Portnoy’s continual imagining of the headlines of his impending doom.  

Soon after “Portnoy’s Complaint” became a best-seller, people quickly jumped to the conclusion that Philip Roth and Alexander Portnoy were one and the same, and that Roth’s breakthrough novel was nothing more than a long, explicit confessional. As Roth said in a 1977 interview:

“I hadn’t just written a book, it seemed, but had become somebody who stood for something. What I realized was that in the popular imagination, and in the media, Roth and Portnoy were about to be fused into the same person.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P. 102)

Roth’s fictional alter-ego, the author Nathan Zuckerman, has to contend with the same problems in Roth’s novel “Zuckerman Unbound,” after the publication of Zuckerman’s successful, sexually explicit novel “Carnovsky.” 

As Zuckerman wonders at the beginning of the book, “All this, this luck-what did it mean? Coming so suddenly, and on such a scale, it was as baffling as a misfortune.” (P.4) 

Zuckerman is constantly accosted by people in the street who recognize him and either think he is great or depraved, depending on what they thought of his book. “They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book.” (P.10) 

Even in writing to him, Zuckerman’s readers cannot separate him from his character. “Eleven letters tonight…Of these, six were addressed to Nathan Zuckerman, three to Gilbert Carnovsky; one, sent in the care of the publishing house, was addressed simply to ‘The Enemy of the Jews’ and had been forwarded to him unopened.” (P.58) 

Just before “Carnovsky” was published, Zuckerman ended his third marriage. He is confronted by a neighbor and friend of his wife’s, who says to him:

 “But that you could do what you have done to Laura…”
“What is that?”
“The things you wrote about her in that book.”
“About Laura? You don’t mean Carnovsky’s girlfriend, do you?” (P.167)

They get into an argument. “Their conversation grew louder and more shameful and went on for another ten minutes. His world was getting stupider by the hour, and so was he.” (P.170) 

In the course of “Zuckerman Unbound,” Zuckerman deals with an obsessive fan who is a former quiz-show winner, Alvin Pepler, loosely based on real-life quiz-show winner Herbie Stempel, and has a one-night stand with a fading movie star, Caesara O’Shea. Zuckerman also begins to get phone calls from someone threatening to kidnap his mother. Zuckerman is literally coming unbound and unglued, as his life gets crazier and crazier.

 Zuckerman’s father dies at the end of the book, and Zuckerman thinks that his father’s last word was “bastard,” directed at him. Zuckerman has a conversation with his brother about this, and his brother says to him:

“You killed him, Nathan. Nobody will tell you-they’re too frightened of you to say it. They think you’re too famous to criticize-that you’re far beyond the reach now of ordinary human beings. But you killed him, Nathan. With that book. Of course he said ‘Bastard.’ He’d seen it! He’d seen what you had done to him and Mother in that book!” (P.217) 

In a 1984 interview, Roth commented on the success of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and “Zuckerman Unbound”:

“It was too big, on a larger and much crazier scale than I could begin to deal with, so I took off. A few weeks after publication, I boarded a bus at the Port Authority terminal for Saratoga Springs, and holed up at Yaddo, the writer’s colony, for three months. Precisely what Zuckerman should have done after ‘Carnovsky’-but he hung around, the fool, and look what happened to him. He would have enjoyed Yaddo more than he enjoyed Alvin Pepler. But it made ‘Zuckerman Unbound’ funnier keeping him in Manhattan, and it made my own life easier, not being there.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P. 176)

Does Roth’s book “The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography,” shed any more light on the writing and publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint”? “The Facts” begins in an odd way, as the first few pages are a letter from Philip Roth to Nathan Zuckerman, asking him for his opinion of the manuscript. What’s odd about this, of course, is that Nathan Zuckerman is a fictional character, a creation sprung from the fecund mind of Philip Roth himself. “The Facts” takes the reader through Roth’s childhood growing up in a Jewish enclave of Newark, New Jersey, to his college experiences at Bucknell University, through his disastrous first marriage, and up to the publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” 

Roth said of “The Facts” in a 1988 interview, “There were other parts to the book that aren’t there now. It went farther along in time. But that wasn’t as interesting, I suppose, because a calm and orderly life is not as interesting as pressure and crisis.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P. 222)

In the chapter “Girl of My Dreams,” Roth recounts how he met “Josie Jensen” in 1956, when he was an instructor at the University of Chicago. Roth had seen her before, but picked her up on the street, and convinced her to have a cup of coffee with him. Roth began a relationship with Josie, but it proved to be a very tumultuous one. Roth writes that two years into their relationship “…we no longer had anything resembling a love affair, only a running feud focused on my character flaws and from which I was finding it impossible to escape no matter how far I fled.” (P.95) Roth describes what a miserable relationship they had, yet he proves unable to shake Josie as she follows him to New York City. He allows her to move in with him when she is broke. Josie is clearly a mess, as she is an unstable woman with a martyr complex who is dearly in need of counseling, and the reader is hoping that Roth can extricate himself from the clutches of this woman when he ends the chapter with the bombshell: “Reader, I married her.” (P.112)

“Josie Jensen” is a pseudonym for Margaret Martinson Williams, Roth’s first wife. They married in 1959, and were separated by 1962, but Williams was unwilling to divorce Roth. In May 1968, while Roth was in the middle of writing “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Williams was killed in a car crash in Central Park, thus suddenly freeing Roth of both his marriage and his continued alimony payments. Roth arranged the funeral, at Frank Campbell’s on Madison and 81st Street, the same funeral chapel that Zuckerman lives across the street from in “Zuckerman Unbound.” 

Roth has this to say about the different events that aided him in the creation of “Portnoy’s Complaint”: 

“What I found then, in New York…were the ingredients that inspired ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ whose publication in 1969 determined every important choice I made during the next decade. There was this audience of sympathetic Jewish friends who responded with euphoric recognition to my dinner-table narratives; there was my intense psychoanalysis, which, undertaken to stitch back together the confidence shredded to bits in my marriage, itself became a model for reckless narrative disclosure of a kind I hadn’t learned from Henry James…” (P.137) 

Roth stresses the point that “Portnoy” was not in any way a self-portrait:

“Unhampered by fealty to real events and people, it was more entertaining, more graphic, and more shapely than my own analysis, if not quite to the point of my personal difficulties. It was a book that had rather less to do with ‘freeing’ me from my Jewishness or from my family (the purpose divined by many, who were convinced by the evidence of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ that the author had to be on bad terms with both) than with liberating me from an apprentice’s literary models…” (P.156-7)

The last chapter of “The Facts” is Zuckerman’s response to Roth’s manuscript. It’s a little unorthodox to have a fictional character critique the work of the author who created him, but Philip Roth has never been afraid to take chances in his work. 

Zuckerman is quite astute as he writes about Roth’s work:

“You see your writing as evolving out of three things. First, there’s your journey from Weequahic Jewishness into the bigger American society…Second, there was the terrific upheaval of the involvement with Josie and the self-consciousness this ignited about your inner weaknesses as a man. Third, as far as I can make out, there’s your response to the larger world…The whole book seems to be leading to the point where these three forces in your life intersect, producing ‘Portnoy’s Complaint.’’’ (P.164-5) 

I agree with Zuckerman, that “Portnoy” was a breakthrough for Roth, and it’s the moment where it all comes together for him. Roth is at last free of his marriage, and he is creating fiction using a unique voice that is his own creation. He’s no longer trying to write like Henry James-as though there’s any way Henry James could ever have written anything as shocking or as funny as “Portnoy”! 

Zuckerman calls out Roth on a lot of things in his response to Roth’s manuscript. For example, he criticizes Roth’s use of a pseudonym for his wife, rather than her real name. Zuckerman also accuses Roth of being less than totally honest in the manuscript. Why does Roth have Zuckerman criticize him so much? As a way to take ammunition away from his critics? Why didn’t he change the narrative of the book if he felt the way Zuckerman does? Or is Zuckerman pursuing his own agenda? If Roth keeps writing non-fiction, then Zuckerman will have no reason to exist. Is Zuckerman criticizing Roth in order to sway Roth back to writing fiction? When an interviewer asked Roth about this in 1988, shortly after the book was published, he said “Zuckerman is wrong. I think the book is pretty candid. I’ve come as close to the truth as I can. Zuckerman can say whatever he wants. That’s his business.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P.241)

What is the line between fact and fiction in the work of Philip Roth? It’s a thin line at times, as shown by the exchange of letters between real author Roth and fictional author Zuckerman. Ultimately, the line between fact and fiction might not really matter and might distract from appreciating Roth’s work. But it’s one that critics have been asking about Philip Roth for decades. Is Philip Roth really Nathan Zuckerman or Alexander Portnoy? Did he really do everything they did in the novels? Of course he didn’t. He’s an author; he makes up stories for a living. I think that we tend to assume that events actually happened to authors the exact same way they happened in a book, that writing fiction is not so much an act of imagination as one of transcription, that all they have to do is merely write it down. 

 As Nathan Zuckerman says, “That writing is an act of the imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.” (“The Anatomy Lesson”)

Roth said in a 1985 interview: “You’re confusing me with all those astute book reviewers who are sure that I am the only novelist in the history of literature who has never made anything up.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P. 196) Roth also said in the same interview: “If all these subtle readers can see in my work is my biography, then they are simply numb to fiction-numb to impersonation, to ventriloquism, to irony, numb to the thousand observations of human life on which a book is built, numb to all the delicate devices by which novels create the illusion of a reality more like the real than our own. End of lecture.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P.192)

Roth also said in a 1988 interview: “I’m not going to pretend that I’m Portnoy. Why should I? Writing is a performance. I imbue the characters with aspects of my personality. I’m the writer. I’m not the actor.” (“Conversations with Philip Roth,” P.241)

However, it’s easy to see why book reviewers and critics would wonder how much of Roth is in his books. When an author gives a character as many surface similarities to himself as Roth gives Alexander Portnoy, of course people are going to assume that the author is that character. Yes, it’s lazy to assume that the author is his character, but it’s natural for people to think that way. I’m doing a certain amount of it in this essay. As an author, you invite a certain amount of that kind of critical attention if your characters have that many similarities to your own background. 

Some of the similarities between Portnoy and Roth: 

Portnoy and Roth were both born in Newark in 1933. Their fathers were both insurance salesmen. Their mothers were both homemakers. Portnoy and Roth both graduated from Weequahic High in 1950. (Nathan Zuckerman was in the class of 1949 at Weequahic.) Roth and Portnoy both skipped two grades in school. 

Are these similarities meaningful? Not terribly, all it means is that Roth has chosen to write about someone coming from a similar background as his. Most critics don’t pay attention to the differences between Portnoy and Roth:

Portnoy has an older sister, Roth has an older brother. Portnoy has difficult relationships with both his parents, while Roth got along well with his parents, despite occasional disagreements with his father. Roth attended Bucknell University, Portnoy did not. Portnoy went on to become a lawyer, while Roth is a writer-although Roth has admitted that it crossed his mind when he was young to become a lawyer. Roth was in the Army for one year, Portnoy was not. Portnoy has never married, while Roth married in 1959. 

Of course, one could say that these differences are not meaningful either. I would counter that by saying that we will ultimately never know whether or not Philip Roth really experienced all of the things that Alexander Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman experienced in the novels. What’s important is the work; that these books are well-written, and they clearly are. Roth’s novels are convincing enough to make people wonder how much of the events depicted actually happened to him, which is in a way the highest praise there is. 

“Portnoy’s Complaint” ushered in a new era in Philip Roth’s career, one in which every move he made would be carefully watched by readers around the world. So it’s fitting to leave the last word to Dr. Spielvogel, whose only line is the closing line of “Portnoy’s Complaint.” “So {said the doctor}. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” (P.274) Once “Portnoy’s Complaint” was published in 1969 now Philip Roth may perhaps to begin-a new chapter in both his life and career.

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