April 7, 2010

Tales from the Completist: "Zuckerman Unbound," by Philip Roth

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Zuckerman Unbound, by Philip Roth

Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
By Philip Roth

As regular readers know, for a long time I've carried a pretty big chip on my shoulder when it comes to the Postmodernist era of literature, which I'm defining here as the period between Kennedy's death in 1963 and September 11th; I suppose it's a natural reaction for any underground artist, in fact, to rebel against the conventional wisdom they were raised on, to yearn for something new and almost diametrically opposite in the arts than what has become the safe status quo. But now that I'm a critic instead of a creative, and especially now that I'm writing the CCLaP 100 essay series (which is as much about examining the grand tapestry of literary history as it is about the individual books themselves), I now find it important to try to understand Postmodernism in a more complex way, to acknowledge not just its limitations but also its strengths, and what led its precepts into becoming the basis for a major movement in the first place. And there's not much of a better way to do this, I thought, than to read the remarkable nine-book series that Philip Roth has written over the decades on this subject, all of them featuring his fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman; because not only is Roth considered one of the greatest writers of the Postmodernist period, but his Zuckerman books are an autobiographical look at his life during the Postmodernist years, from his college days right at the start of the era to his elderly years of our current times, a rare opportunity to examine an entire period of history through the related three-act narrative stories of someone who lived through it all, and who wrote most of the tales in nearly real time to when they were actually happening.

Last year I got a chance to review the first Zuckerman book, 1979's The Ghost Writer, which I encourage you to read first if you haven't already; taking place exactly twenty years previously, it is like I said a look at Roth's early twenties, when he was first breaking into the east-coast literary scene (i.e. getting his first stories published in magazines like The New Yorker), told through the filter of a dinner one night with a Bernard-Malamud- or Saul-Bellow-type mentor, a fellow Jew but a little older and a lot more famous, and who has a complicated relationship with his public reputation as a groundbreaking author of contemporary Jewish literature. (And in fact, now that I've read Bellow's Pulitzer-winning Humboldt's Gift, published just four years before The Ghost Writer, I've come to understand just what an homage Roth's book is to his, both of them laid-back looks at American intellectualism in the post-war period, and what exact role Jews had in it.) Today's book, then, Zuckerman Unbound, although written only two years after The Ghost Writer, skips ahead an entire decade in its setting: it's now 1971, just a year or two since Zuckerman's novel Carnovsky has become a national sensation, a naughty but witty "smart person's sex romp" published at the exact right moment of the countercultural revolution, and which has thrust Zuckerman into the role of spokesman for an entire generation of young, with-it Jews.

And for those who don't know, this is indeed exactly what happened in Roth's real life too -- that after establishing himself at the tail-end of Modernism with a series of stories written in the formal style of such Realists as Henry James, his filthy but funny Portnoy's Complaint from 1969 became a true highlight of the entire countercultural movement, and helped re-define young urban Jews into nebbish yet undeniable sex symbols of a new age (and this in the same years that Woody Allen was doing the same thing in the movie industry). It's something I talk about in detail during my write-up of the first Zuckerman book, but bears repeating, of just how successful such '60s and '70s figures as Roth, Allen, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and others were at "normalizing" the ins-and-outs of Jewish life in the eyes of their mostly Christian mainstream audiences, so much so that we often forget now just how controversial such a thing was back then. As Roth so expertly reminds us in these books, for a long time after World War Two, Jews were of profoundly different minds regarding just how they should present themselves to society in the first place; after all, before the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was a semi-accepted part of life nearly across the planet, with it only being the pure brutality of the concentration camps that finally snapped so many Westerners out of their own anti-Jewish attitudes. Many Jews during the Mid-Century Modernist period thought that they should take advantage of this newfound collective goodwill, that they should as much as possible simply not remind people that Jews even exist, and the few times they do to make sure it's some example of noble selflessness like Anne Frank, the dead diary-writing teen who single-handedly had more to do with defining Judaism in the '50s and '60s than any other individual on the planet.

It was Roth and other young hip Jews of the countercultural period who changed all this, who dared to commit the unspeakable sin of portraying their fellow Jews as actual complex human beings, flaws and tics and all, who dared to talk about such exclusively Jewish subjects in their work as seder and sitting shiva, demanding that mainstream America get caught up to them, instead of them constantly having to dumb down their lives to a lily-white Christian audience. And like I said, although these artists of the Postmodernist period did such a good job at this that we barely even question such a thing anymore, to the generation of Jews who survived the Holocaust this was seen as the ultimate in self-hating behavior, to air their community's dirty laundry to a group of misunderstanding Caucasians who just thirty years ago had been slaughtering their people by the millions, and in these older Jews' minds were just itching for an excuse to start doing so again.

Or to cite an excellent example from the book itself, look at the consternation that is caused by including a spindly loser Jew as a character (based believe it or not on tainted quiz-show fallen hero Herb Stempel, who for a time in the '50s was the most famous living Jew in the entire United States), personally repulsive to most and always with an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory whenever something doesn't go his way...or in other words, Uncle Leo from Seinfeld. ("HELLLLOOO, Jerry!") It's remarkable, I think, that the mention of a character type that now elicits fond and knowing laughter was just forty years ago seen by most Jews as the height of race-sabotaging behavior; and that is the power of Postmodernism, that writers like Roth and others really were able to bring about a world where Seinfeld is now one of the most beloved television shows in history, a world where Yiddish terms now pepper the everyday vernacular of most Christians, and where nearly every suburban grocery store now has an entire aisle just for various ethnic speciality foods from around the world. And that like I said is the whole reason I'm reading the Zuckerman books in the first place, to understand all the remarkable things that the Postmodernists actually accomplished, instead of just always concentrating on the endless snotty irony and pop-culture worship that became unfortunate side-effects of the age.

Ultimately I can give this book no better of a compliment than to state the following, that reading this slyly funny, slow-moving character-based story made me understand what it must've been like to be a middle-aged intellectual in the early '80s -- you know, living in a rehabbed attic loft in Minneapolis or Denver, watching The Big Chill and thirtysomething, reading insightful novels about the human condition whose covers are rendered in big looping script typefaces, having debates at dinner parties over the continued relevance of Norman Mailer. Reading Zuckerman Unbound felt exactly like this, like getting literally transported back to this era, and it's easy to see why it's arguably the best and certainly one of the most popular of all the books in the entire Zuckerman series. It makes me glad that I took on this project in the first place, and I'm now looking highly forward to tackling the next book in the series, 1983's The Anatomy Lesson.

Read even more about Zuckerman Unbound: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:25 PM, April 7, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |