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Richard Eder

THE COUNTERLIFE by Philip Roth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 324 pp.)

January 11, 1987|RICHARD EDER

Philip Roth has made his fifth run at the insatiable Nathan Zuckerman, that wrestler with ambition, fame, sex, his writer's identity, his Jewish identity and his uncontainable urge to have not merely the last word, but every other word as well.

In "The Ghost Writer," Roth introduced him as a young novelist on the make, treading upon the nimbus of his revered and resented role model, Lonoff. He returned him as "Zuckerman Unbound," celebrity author of a hugely successful book that shocked family and friends and that clearly suggested Roth and "Portnoy's Complaint."

"The Anatomy Lesson" had Zuckerman crippled with a bad back, ministered to by a relay of agile women, and still at work punishing self-doubt with rage and rage with self-doubt. In "The Prague Orgy," Roth sent him briefly off to Czechoslovakia, as if to see whether he could find release in a world where authorial paranoia is dignified by genuine enemies.

And now: "The Counterlife." Like a machine turning faster and faster and hotter and hotter, it flies apart. Through a story that takes place in Israel and England as well as in the United States, Roth propels Zuckerman all ways at once.

He kills him off, brings him back, and confuses him with his dentist-brother, Henry. He tells his story variously as something actually happening, as possible fictions contrived by Zuckerman, and as versions supplied by his English wife and by Henry. These versions, in turn, may be distorted by self-interest, or they may be additional Zuckerman fictions.

There are alternative beginnings and endings, sliding panels, sleight-of-hand. As always--but more so--the protagonist implacably pursues his arguments and conclusions in opposite and simultaneous directions. No cake was ever so lavishly consumed and so jealously saved as Zuckerman's.

"The Counterlife" is ingenious, frequently dazzling, and the most entertaining and inventive overdose that Roth has written since "Portnoy." It is the Zuckerman book to end all Zuckerman books. But it doesn't.

After enough transformations to constitute genetic mutation, Zuckerman, whether dead or alive, is obstinately there: unrelieved, unredeemed and unchanged. The notion is at least faintly appalling. I am not sure whether Roth is ready for more, let alone his readers, but his hero--or Frankenstein monster?--clearly is.

Here is a brief account of the book's variations.

The first section tells of the ostensible death of Henry, whose humdrum domestic life achieved excitement and hope through two clandestine affairs, the first--long ended--with a Swiss woman, the second--continuing--with Wendy, his dental assistant. Henry develops angina, and his heart medicine makes him impotent. Rather than be deprived of Wendy, he insists, against his doctor's advice, on a bypass operation. It kills him.

The obsessive extremity of Henry's choice seems more typical of his brother. And it is Zuckerman who tells Henry's story. This should make us suspicious. And sure enough, in the following section, Zuckerman is in Israel seeking out Henry. Henry has survived his operation, fallen into a depression, and--needing a different kind of extremity--joined a fanatic colony of Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

After an inconclusive, and stunningly written, encounter with Henry and Mordecai, the colonists' charismatic leader, Zuckerman flies to London to join his pregnant English wife, Maria. There is an attempted hijacking in which the protagonist, mistaken for an accomplice, is beaten by Israeli security men, one of whom, naturally, quotes Melville and T. S. Eliot. And before Zuckerman can reach London, the narration is turned upside down once more, and Henry takes over.

Now, it seems, it was Zuckerman who was impotent and who submitted to the fatal bypass operation in order to have sex with Maria. Fresh from his brother's funeral, Henry visits his apartment, finds the note and manuscripts of what we have read, and destroys part of them as libelous inventions. Right after this, Maria appears and is interviewed by Zuckerman's ghost about her reaction to the book's final section, which follows.

In this last section, entitled "Christendom," Zuckerman is alive and potent. He reaches London, joins Maria and goes through a series of painful encounters with her relatives. They are country gentry whose politely concealed, and probably vestigial, anti-Semitism Zuckerman ferrets out and amplifies into a major and possibly terminal quarrel with Maria.

I say "possibly," because readers are free to decide what "Christendom's" ambiguous ending means. They are also free to decide whether it is, in fact, a fictional manuscript surviving Zuckerman's real death or whether it is the death that is fictional and "Christendom" that is real. Or neither.

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