Philip Roth's alter-ego finds his 'happily ever after': Stranger than Fiction

Posted by Hunter Prichard

The "Zuckerman books" are a series of three novels and a novella written by Philip Roth. Roth has been a force in American literature for the past 40 or 50 years; he has written books that scare critics away and trick the intellectual fools on the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees into giving him honors.

Nathan Zuckerman, the arrogant and insecure narrator, is Roth's alter-ego. Both are perverse, unromantic, famous, Jewish and from New Jersey. When Roth was in his thirties, he wrote a book sparked "Portnoy's Complaint." The book caused controversy and vilified Roth as a "self-hating Jew."

The book sold a lot of copies and turned him into an outlaw of American letters.

Zuckerman writes a book titled, "Carnovsky" — the same in spirit and in content as "Portnoy's Complaint" — that gave some assurance into Roth's private life.

"The Anatomy Lesson", written in 1983, is the third novel in the series. Zuckerman is in his forties and is well-known around the world as an important author. He is a survivor of three marriages, and the divorces are all considerably his fault. His parents are dead and his brother is estranged. Suddenly, he is overcome with physical pain that leaves him stationary and unable to type.

The physical impediment comes so suddenly that no diagnosis can be made. Zuckerman comes to the conclusion that it is God's sign to stop writing.

Zuckerman is a lonely man with an ear for words and a high-voltage sex drive. He does not have friends, his ex-wives hate him and he has no family. Though he has four women who come to take care of him, he is eager to reinvent his life.

On a whim, he decides to reenter the University of Chicago as a pre-med student. He decides to quit writing to become a doctor to follow his literary heroes who found themselves in ruts, mentioning Kafka, who became a waiter in a café, and Mailer who ran for mayor of New York City.

On his way from New York City to Chicago to convince an old friend to give him a recommendation on his application, Zuckerman brings the reader into specific moments in his life. There is the pain of his mother's death and his travels to Florida for her funeral, which is the last time he saw his family. There is a letter from a distinguished academic named Milton Appel who critiques his work and now wants him to write a pro-Israel essay following the 1973 Egyptian-Syrian attack on Yom Kippur.

The action of the novel goes everywhere. One moment Zuckerman is impersonating Appel and explaining his love of pornography to a limo driver and the next he is comforting a friend's father who is weeping after losing his wife. There are moments of reflection about the relations between sons and "the last old-fashion fathers," as well as a hopeless, exasperated argument about the merits of extravagance.

Things jump about while questions and conflicts are raised and contemplated, making the narrative seem like a mess. Then comes the wonderfully thought-out ending of Zuckerman's reaffirmation in life.

During an argument, he falls and smashes his face into many pieces. The injury forces him to spend a considerable amount of time in surgery. Zuckerman ends a new man, making rounds in the hospital as a doctor's assistant.

For the first time in a while, he is happy.

Hunter is a controversial writer who speaks his mind. He is also from Maine, or "Vacationland."

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