Speaking Volumes | My Spring Break with Philip Roth

March, 05 2012

At the end of 1995, I briefly dropped out of college. It was an unpleasant time, to say the least. I kept asking myself who I was and, foolishly, desired answers. When I returned to school six months later I thought it might be good to meet some different people. So for spring break 1997 I climbed into a truck with a bunch of new friends for an excursion to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Death Valley. Before we departed, a buddy gave me a paperback copy of Philip Roth’s 1986 book The Counterlife, the fifth of his nine “Zuckerman Novels.” I had read Roth before—admittedly only Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint—and was indifferent to his work. I didn’t see myself in those stories. I wasn’t “those Jews.” My only interest in Roth was observing how he irritated the Jewish-American community. Unlike his critics (many of whom I am still convinced have never read one of his books) I never saw Roth as a self-hating Jew. I saw him as a kindred not-so-nice Jewish boy presenting an insider’s perspective on something he knew intimately, following the tradition F. Scott Fitzgerald pioneered in The Great Gatsby. It takes one to really know one after all, and the best people to challenge and deconstruct a culture’s view of itself are those from within. But I was up in the air about Roth’s work itself.

On the next-to-last day of our trip I sat at our campsite in Death Valley and could not put down The Counterlife. It’s a novel of “what ifs” centering on Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, going off to find his thought-to-be secular brother, Henry, who has abandoned his wife and children for a life with West Bank fanatics in Israel, and how each man grapples with his own Jewishness. Throughout the entire book, Nathan wants to believe that being Jewish makes him no different from anyone else until unexpected anti-Semitism makes that belief impossible. For the first time, I was reading fiction on Jewish themes that posed questions that had no definitive answers and forced me to reconsider my place in the world. When I read lines in The Counterlife such as “I don’t have to act like a Jew—I am one,” my values were challenged instead of being reaffirmed, as they might be if I were watching, say, Neil Simon’s play Brighton Beach Memoirs (Are family bonds really as unconditional as we like to believe they are? Should we really sacrifice our individual passions for the greater community’s agenda? What can make reasonable and grounded people behave recklessly?). The novel was completely devoid of sentimentality—perfect for a bitter and jaded 21-year-old.

I had been writing fiction seriously for several years, but had shied away from exploring Jewish themes in my stories. Being the son of a suburban dentist and teacher didn’t seem all that interesting to me. I had always had an instinctive aversion to the advice that writers should pen “what they know.” In The Counterlife, I saw a Jewish author instead exploring what he “knew about” and was still trying to understand. Roth was asking questions instead of providing answers. What does it mean to be American and Jewish? How can a Jew feel little connection to his background when in Israel, and then be hypersensitive to it in the diaspora? The traditional brother, Henry, and the nontraditional brother, Nathan, were not having my experiences, but at that moment in my life they mirrored questions I had no answers to. Roth rightly provided none. The novel let me know that the unanswerable is a good thing in life and on the page. It made me aware that I had it backwards. I needed the questions more than the answers, both as a writer and a person.

The Counterlife also did something for me that I doubt any other work of fiction would have. It freed me from my inhibition to address Jewish themes. It gave me the courage to be fearless in being an unapologetic “Jewish writer.” It especially encouraged me to speak to Jewish readers and say: You may think you understand things but I’ll make you never think about them the same again. I would like to think that my recently published first novel, Celluloid Strangers, does just that. And Roth forced me to break away from the conservative position that there is no place for the author himself in a story. Roth’s alter ego made me believe: Yes, I am writing these stories and I have every right to have a place in them.

I haven’t read a Roth book in a long time. His work doesn’t speak to the 36-year-old me, and none of his other Zuckerman novels ever affected me as profoundly as The Counterlife did, because it was a case of reading a specific book at a certain moment in my life. But I am eternally grateful that The Counterlife came to me when it did. I never wrote the same again after reading it, and because of it my own work doesn’t present what I know, but instead explores what I “know about” and am still attempting to figure out. I still hold to the view that unanswerable questions are a good thing to have in our lives, both artistically and personally. The Counterlifetaught me what William H. Gass noted in his review of the novel, that “life doesn’t necessarily have a course, a simple sequence, a predictable pattern.” And neither should great literature.

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