November 5, 2010

Tales from the Completist: "The Anatomy Lesson," 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.)

The Anatomy Lesson, by Philip Roth

The Anatomy Lesson (1983)
By Philip Roth

As regular visitors know, I'm in the midst of reading all nine of the autobiographical "Nathan Zuckerman" novels that author Philip Roth has penned over the decades, from 1979's The Ghost Writer to 2007's Exit Ghost. And that's because, as a newish book critic (only three years full-time now), I'm continually trying to educate myself more about the periods of literary history I know the least about, which would definitely include the Postmodernist Era, which lasted roughly from Kennedy's death to 9/11 (deliberately depressing touchstones chosen because of this period mostly marked by a preoccupation with the downfall of America, or more generally the downfall of all post-industrial Western lifestyles); and many say that one cannot get any better of a dense yet simplified look at that era than to read all of Roth's Zuckerman books, since he not only spent most of his adult life in this period (in his thirties at the beginning, in his seventies by the end) but is also one of the more revered artists of this period, as a result living a very typical Postmodernist life (as dutifully recorded in these lightly fictionalized true-life tales) even while helping to shape what those "typical" issues were for society as a whole.

I've already covered his first book, The Ghost Writer, Roth's look back at his twenties as a hot young star of very late Modernism, publishing his first New Yorker stories at the same time as his fellow Postmodernist pioneers as John Updike, Norman Mailer and more, in the case of this book looking at it all through the filter of the naive Zuckerman attending a boozy "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" type dinner in rural New England with a Saul Bellow stand-in, an older and more successful writer who is ambivalent about his status as a 20th-century trailblazer in Jewish literature, actually written twenty years after the relevant events described; and I've already reviewed his second novel in the series as well, the highly popular Zuckerman Unbound, a frank and sometimes self-scathing look at Roth's thirties, when his funny and filthy Portnoy's Complaint became an accidental international bestseller, and helped kick off an entire countercultural series of nebbishly "sexy" young urban Jews like Woody Allen and the like, fictionalized here into Zuckerman's Carnovsky and which has ignited a mostly generational fiery debate among the Jewish community, for laying out in a funny yet revealing proto-Seinfeld way all the foibles and personality tics of that community, tropes we now generally find endearing (the guilt-inducing Jewish mother, the crazy uncle full of anti-Semite conspiracy theories) but that were highly controversial to talk about at the time that Roth did.

And the reason I mention this in such detail is that today's book under review, 1983's The Anatomy Lesson, is in many ways about the same subjects, just with Zuckerman now in his forties (the book's set in the Ford/Carter years of the mid-'70s), and how time and further revelations have now changed the way he look at all these topics. Because this is a sadder and more complicated Zuckerman we're seeing here, one whose parents have recently died and whose brother accuses Carnovsky of killing, which Nathan thinks of in a complex way -- sometimes wishing that he had done things differently, sometimes angry over the fact that his parents could've "gotten it" if they had tried, but had chosen instead to be deliberately insulted by him airing their community's "dirty laundry" to the cackling laughter of a Gentile audience. And like I said, this does two things at once; because since so many of Roth's fellow baby-boomers had similarly contentious relationships with their parents over their countercultural beliefs, and since it's so common to lose one's parents in one's forties, Roth ends up speaking to his entire generation in this novel, even as it also exists as a specific roman a clef about the ups and downs of intellectual fame, of being a reluctant sex symbol in a "let it all hang out" age, and more.

But let me also make it clear that, of the five Roth novels I've now read (the three mentioned, 2004's The Plot Against America, and 2009's The Humbling), this is the first one to make me regularly giggle out loud in public all the way through it, and I mean to the point where it was annoying my neighbors at the cafe; and that's because this is also a very funny look at the Male Mid-Life Crisis, and all the ridiculous attitudes and actions that come with it. That's actually where the name of the book comes from -- because as it opens, we find a 40-year-old Zuckerman suffering from a mysterious back pain that has nearly hobbled him, which a dozen different doctors haven't yet been able to diagnose, even as he is also becoming more and more aware of his rapidly corroding body (thinning hair, softening belly), eventually requiring just to get through his day his "harem of Florence Nightingales," a cadre of four women who play different roles in his life but in one way or another help to take care of him, some of whom also regularly have kinky sex with him despite his injuries. (He props up his head during oral sex with a thousand-page thesaurus, given to him by his proudly blue-collar immigrant father in the 1940s as he headed off for college at the University of Chicago; and that single sentence right there gives you a pretty good snapshot look at Roth's entire career.)

Tired of his role as a public intellectual and scourge of feminists and conservative Jews nationwide, on the spur of a moment one day Zuckerman decides that what he really wants to do is move back to Chicago and go to medical school (yet another development the novel's title alludes to), figuring that he'll be ready to have a nice quiet practice completely out of the limelight by the time he's fifty; but this is where the zany part comes in, as it often does with humorous Postmodernist Jewish artists, because Zuckerman happens to be self-medicating for his pain at the time, through a combination of vodka, weed, and Percodan overdoses, which makes him come to believe that a spur-of-the-moment trip to Chicago is in order, to hit up an old college friend who's now a doctor for a med-school recommendation, the surrealism upped more and more through the continual cocktail of controlled substances he downs all the way there, which by the time he's in Chicago has him babbling in morphine-fueled monologues to anyone who will listen about how he's actually a Larry-Flynt-type publisher of hardcore smut who is there to kick Hugh Hefner's ass, proudly proclaiming his name to be actually the name of a Jewish book critic who has panned all of Zuckerman's books. (And for my fellow Chicagoans, don't miss the amazingly nostalgic and detailed reminisces about the city in the 1950s that Roth offers up in this section, including fantastic descriptions of a run-down Mid-Century-Modernist Loop, and getting drunk with Thomas Mann in the still-existing Hyde Park dive-bar institution Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap.) The whole thing culminates, then, with a series of wonderful little surprises which is why I won't spoil things, but suffice to say that things end on a somber note but that has interesting things to say about the aging and maturation process.

It's Roth really at the top of his form for the first time, coming into his mature voice here in the early '80s just in time for his most revered work, award-winning novels like American Pastoral and The Human Stain that he will be best remembered for; but at the same time, it's also a timeless look at middle-age and the issues that all people in their early forties go through (although especially nebbish, oversexed intellectuals in their early forties), which on top of simply being a good history book now gives you triple the usual reasons to read it yourself. I have to say, three titles in now, I'm really glad so far that I decided to take on the Zuckerman novels, and this latest has me looking that much more forward now to the next in the series, 1985's provocatively titled The Prague Orgy, an experimental novella in which we follow Zuckerman's journal as he travels to Communist Czechoslovakia to seek a missing manuscript from a martyred Yiddish writer. Here's hoping it'll be as good as the first three volumes.

Read even more about The Anatomy Lesson: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:48 PM, November 5, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |