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Tuesday
Sep202011

Roth and His Narrators

There are many reasons Philip Roth is among the finest American writers. He chronicles the post-war years as no one else. He seems to be fearless in the subjects he tackles, from adolescent lust to the withering, debilitating fear of death that grows, does not fade, as life proceeds. And then there's his visceral, almost violent writing style--not the subject matter (although it often is visceral and violent) but the very style of the words on the page, a constant onslaught of enjambed phrases, piling on top of each other, slamming adjective against adjective, rewriting, rethinking midstream, positing new ideas mid-sentence, without the slightest look back, a sort of bravado of vocabulary, with more phrases piling on top, a stream of thoughts, some of the contradictory, as if all that matters is the plethora of words, a dizzying display. Like that last sentence.

However, not all of Roth's books are so stylized. In fact, that piling-on voice is associated mostly with one of his narrators: Nathan Zuckerman.

Over the course of his career, Philip Roth has created a series of narrators who loom large over his stories--who themselves might be the real story.

For example, there's the libertine academic, David Kepesh, whose course in three novels ends up in a bizarre, Kafka-esque, and adolescent transformation. In "The Breast," Kepesh finally endures a "endocrinopathic catastrophe" to become an oversized female breast.

In five other novels, often partaking in a paranoid narcissism that becomes both illuminating and obscuring, Philip Roth creates a narrator named "Philip Roth," not the novelist himself, but a shy, coy toy, a daring gamesmanship with the reader, who is pulled into a hall of mirrors. In "Operation Shylock," the game goes so far that the narrator "Philip Roth" searches in Israel for a man who has assumed the name "Philip Roth" and is pretending to be an American writer preaching a particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism, advocating for the return of the Jews from Isreal to their European countries of origin.

In other books, we encounter the one-off mouth-offers, mostly hoary goats (though not all), like Nathan Tarnapol ("My Life As a Man"), Alexander Portnoy ("Portnoy's Complaint"), and Mickey Sabbath (not strictly the narrator of "Sabbath's Theater" but certainly its debauched, informing consciousness).

And then there's Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's most compelling narrator--and the voice with whom he seems to have the most profound involvement, perhaps not identification, but a kind of woven-together cohesiveness, a voice he has seen fit to chronicle clear to its deathbed in the recent "Exit Ghost." Indeed, Zuckerman's story spans nine novels. There are the five so-called "Zuckerman books," each a step in about his becoming a novelist and coming of age; there's one novel about the crisis of faith and indentity inspired by his coronary disease ("The Counterlife"); and there are the three novels that have become Roth's American trilogy and arguably his masterpiece: "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist," and "The Human Stain." These last feature Zuckerman at work, the framing narrator, a repository consciousness for compelling stories about post-war America, stories certainly more tragic that Zuckerman's rise to fame as an American novelist.

Zuckerman turns AMERICAN PASTORAL into a treasury of Americana from the '50s to the late '90s, a sort of sum-up of the American century. In the novel's epigraph and again when Zuckerman is dancing with Joy Helpern at the class reunion in chapter 3, the Johnny Mercer song "Dream" functions as the beginning of the narrative impulse. Here it is, sung by the 1951 incarnation of the Pied Pipers:

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