Saturday, 21 December 2013

A profound journey through the shoals of fame in The Zuckerman Trilogy

From The Week of December 1st, 2013

Our lives are defined by pivotal moments, convergences of chance and self-determination that redirect us towards new and unexpected destinies. Of these impactful moments, we remember the negative outcomes with far more clarity than the positive, not only because it is in our natures to rue our failures more than we celebrate our successes, but because these misfortunes leave us grasping vainly for our fleeting triumphs, leaving us to dream of what could have been. But while this is understandable, perhaps we should give more thought to the consequences of our successes as well. After all, achievement doesn't come without its own costs. In fact, often, those costs are cloaked by the warm glow of having advanced our interests, making it all the more difficult to brace for them. This is a lesson driven home by Philip Roth's at-times mesmerizing trilogy.

It's not easy being Nathan Zuckerman. He may have come from good, Jewish stock that drove him to be his best; he may be an ambitious and talented writer with a deep desire to make his mark on the world; he may even be a man of some considerable attractiveness and charm, allowing him to enjoy all of society's various pleasures. But these advantages, both external and internal, are of little comfort to a man haunted by his most famous, and infamous novel, a work of fiction that drew on aspects of his own youth to make some difficult and pointed comments about American and Jewish culture.

For anyone else, becoming a famous author would be cause for celebration, and perhaps it was for Zuckerman too, for a time. But as the years accumulate, he finds himself, his family and his relationships increasingly defined by the audaciousness of that novel which deeply offends his father and compels his mother to continually guard herself against the snide and insinuating comments of her neighbors. This ever-increasing burden robs Zuckerman of his health and his happiness, plunging him into a succession of relationships that are as torrid as they are dysfunctional. Eventually, Zuckerman's bitterness completely seizes hold of his existence, making a mockery of his dreams, his plans and his hopes and leaving him with nothing but his dark emotions.

A journey as brief as it is profound, The Zuckerman Trilogy is a fascinating examination of the life of a man blessed and cursed by talent. Mr. Roth, widely thought to be one of the greatest living American authors, creates something of an alter ego in Zuckerman and then heaps upon him all the punishments of ambition and unrestrained desire which feast upon him until there is nothing left of the man but the most jagged of emotions. In lesser hands, such a premise might seem like the height of arrogance and self-indulgence. Writing harshly about one's own fame, knowing that to do so will only make one even more famous? It seems rather cynical. And yet, Mr. Roth is such a keen observer of the human condition, and is so disgustingly skilled at conveying his own revelations through taut, imaginative prose, that the reader is left humbled by his prowess rather than being amused by his conceit.

Of the three works, the first is the most narratively engaging. While introducing us to Zuckerman, The Ghost Writer posits the idea that Anne Frank survived her ordeal with the Nazis and emigrated secretly to New England where she proceeded to live out a quiet and secretive life, cognizant that revealing her existence would inestimably reduce the power of her diary which she never expected to be published. This is a delightful thought experiment and one that helps carry the novel to a complex conclusion. But it's The Anatomy Lesson, the trilogy's final work, that finds Mr. Roth at his most spellbindingly profound. From about the halfway point of the work, the author goes on what must be one of the most powerful and entertaining rants in literary history, one that combines conceit, cowardice and cruelty in a manner that cannot but move the reader to conclude that the author is truly as skilled as his puppet Zuckerman is disfigured by a life lived at odds.

For all of the wonderful ideas and exchanges contained within these pages, however, most lasting is Mr. Roth's implication that fame is an uncontrollable beast. Zuckerman sets out to be successful, certainly, but he never contemplates what that fame might do to him and to the people he's closest to. Nor does he realize that the moment he publishes his work, he loses every ounce of control he has over his public life. He cannot dissuade people from judging him, much less judging his parents. He can't unmake the work. He can't unmake the thoughts people have about the work. He cannot make a plea for people to not read the book. He has made himself subject to the riptides of history and popular opinion which he is in no way able to steer, or even to influence. This is a delicious insight that lends fire and force to the trilogy throughout.

Challenging at times, but well worth the contemplation. For this is nothing short of work that stretches the boundaries of fiction. Such blazing lights are exceedingly rare. (4/5 Stars)

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