, February 05, 2011
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An intelligent human being: a large-scale producer of misunderstanding
In this amazing, provocative novel – with five interconnected chapters of varying fictive purpose - there is scarcely any aspect of Jewish life, whether at the level of individual, family, or broader society, which goes unexamined by renowned writer, Nathan Zuckerman (Roth’s alter ego). Having exposed the ridiculousness of his childhood family in his acclaimed, hurtful book, CARNOVSKY, thus, acquiring a reputation as a biting social critic, Nathan, in frank, often acerbic, letters, reminiscences, and long conversations, challenges comforting illusions in many areas and concerns of life, such as marriage, fidelity, potency, religion, Jewish authenticity, discrimination, etc, including the underlying attitudes and beliefs. Ultimately, it is how one is situated in those facets of life, as perceived by self and others, that supplies the basis of one’s identity. However, for the characters in this book, identity is not a given; in fact, they suggest the difficulty of establishing an unquestioned, coherent, resilient identity.
Little is sacred to Nathan is his quest to expose life’s fictions. In fact, in the first three chapters of the book Nathan examines the supposed obsessions and excesses in Henry’s, his younger brother, life. First, Henry is seen agonizing over an operation with life-threatening possibilities to restore potency, though hardly to improve his marriage. Next, Henry abruptly joins an obscure settlement in Israel established by a radical Jewish element, having suddenly decided that his former life was superficial - inauthentic. However, in chapter four, Gloucestershire, it turns out that Nathan is actually the brother who has had bypass surgery. Henry goes through Nathan’s papers to discover that his older brother has ever intention of misrepresenting him, disparagingly so, as a person with ridiculous identity issues in Nathan’s next book. Interestingly enough, those notes appear as the first chapters of this book – fiction within fiction!
Chapter five, Christendom, finds Nathan, having married pleasant, sharp, younger, upper-class Maria, is convinced that his very being is under assault as it turns out that Maria’s mother and older sister either harbor or express anti-Semitism. His defensive, non-religious urbanity is thinner than he realized. Maria is not particularly sensitive to Nathan’s concerns, finding his reactions to be a failure to accept reality at the risk of jeopardizing their marriage. The doubts and dilemmas of the fictional Henry suddenly do not seem so ridiculous; perhaps one’s choices have constraints that come to the surface only at certain stressful times in life.
A curious aspect of the book is the constant criticism that Nathan (Roth) gets from those whose motives or passions he questions. He, as an isolated writer, is accused of failing to grasp unpleasant, harsh, and changing reality, preferring to excoriate those who have to deal with the world as it is presented to them, and holding to a purist, idealistic view of life that is both arrogant and irrelevant. There is little response. Additionally, the author is hardly unaware of the comedic and absurd aspects of man’s foibles. How zany can you get: the young religious fanatic who hunts down Nathan at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and pretends to be an outfielder catching a ball against the wall. The phallic-centric Roth is on full display in the interview scene between Henry and his new dental assistant.
Practically every page of this book is pregnant with perceptive comments, descriptions, ideas, etc. Despite weighty matters, the writing is eminently understandable, precise, sarcastic, and, for the most part, keeps the story going. Final answers are in short supply, however. According to Nathan after his last “stupid” argument with Maria,
“Life ‘is’ and: the accidental and the immutable, the elusive and the graspable, the bizarre and the predictable, the actual and the potential, and the multiplying realities, entangled, overlapping, colliding, conjoined – plus the multiplying illusions! … Is an intelligent human being likely to be much more than a large-scale manufacturer of misunderstanding?”
While there are no hard and fast answers, the book is not without its view. Sex is a powerful instigator in life; decisions based on sex can be ridiculous. More important to the author are the far greater consequences and meaning involved in fanatical religious perspectives, on the one hand, but also in the dehumanizing of those of a different religious experience. In addition, superior, dismissive, know-it-all approaches to one’s own life or towards other will invariably come up short. While this book is not without a certain amount of ambiguity and complexity, it is so amazingly intelligent, thought provoking, and entertaining, that it must be read.