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Zuckerman Unbound Zuckerman Unbound 1981 the second in Roth’s Zuckerman Bound trilogy is a sort of comic romp that turns gradually tragicomic Certainly serious in the end Not Tolstoy exactly but maybe leaning to Chekhov with some echoes of Kafka in there The novel features the writer Zuckerman 20 years after the events of The Ghost Writer which had Zuckerman at 20 having published a few stories At this point Zuckerman is a famous writer with several books published and he doesn’t handle fame well His family and the Jewish community upbraids him for “making fun” of Jewish folks through his most recent and celebrated novel Carnovsky a kind of sex romp like Portnoy’s ComplaintA central character in this book is Alvin Pepler modeled on Herb Stempel who was a central figure in the 1950’s uiz Show scandals A ZuckermanRoth affair with a noted actress is featured continuing a theme of the tortured relations between husband and wife but the central focus of the book is the pain of the relations between children and parents and the confused understanding many people have about the relationship between an author and his creations How can you cause your mother and father so much pain writing about such a sexual Jewish guy You’re bringing shame on our family and community and all Jews In the end facing criticism for what some people perceive as his “anti Jewish” sentiments Zuckerman breaks free from any sense of strict responsibility to his family and community and cultural tradition choosing to be responsible to his art and the truth as he sees it thus the titleI liked this book uite a bit but it isn’t in the same league as his best books Portnoy’s Complaint American Pastoral The Plot Against America nor even The Ghost Writer that I just read Normally I would just rate a book of this caliber 4 stars but compared to the others I’ve recently read from Roth I’d have to say it is good not great for him maybe 325 Not the place to start with him for sure Though Portnoy’s Complaint and this book would make a nice pairing Hilarious and still eminently readable after than 35 years So good I will have to think about this one I loved parts and really liked other parts but I also know later Roth is nearly perfect so how do I give this one five stars Ah oh well I'll cross that Carnovsky bridge tomorrow A Wake up call for Writers Seeking FameEvery writer aspiring for fame and fortune would be advised to read this book It will certainly cool any wannabe’s ardourNathan Zuckerman Roth’s alter ego has just vaulted into the millionaire ranks with the success of his fourth novel Carnovsky a proxy for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint The problem is that Nathan doesn’t know how to live like a millionaire he still visits the neighbourhood sandwich shop travels on the subway and is not very much into socializing He has just left his third wife because he tires of self contained women and needs to find his freedom conversely his first two wives were needy women whom he needed to escape from too The additional problem is that he is now considered a traitor by the Jews of Newark for having exposed all their uirks in his novel He feels he is being followed that the perpetrators mean him and his family bodily harm; how much of this is paranoia vs reality is revealed as the book unfoldsCentral to his paranoia is a character called Al Peppler who accosts Nathan on the street and sticks with him like a leech Peppler knows everything about Nathan and is a two time war vet who was making it big on a TV game show when he was cut down to size due to his Jewishness he claims Peppler is now courting a music producer to get his exposé novel on the state of America converted into a Broadway musical and wants Nathan’s opinion and approval When Nathan shies away he gets threatening phone calls from people demanding ransom money for a kidnap yet to happen on his mother; Nathan wonders whether the voice is that of PepplerNathan’s agent seems to know the answers to this condition as he has managed many artists through their breakout phase with its attendant psychoses and tries to get Nathan to scale up date a Hollywood actress be seen in society circles buy a car upgrade his wardrobe get a bodyguard Nathan tries to comply but he is stuck in who he really is and with the guilt that perhaps he did let his people down with his breakout novelThe novel suddenly dives into the family as Zuckerman Sr Nathan’s father a veteran sufferer of strokes suffers a fatal coronary Zuckerman Sr was a career chiropodist who was also a great letter writer writing copiously to presidents and vice presidents to express his views on Israel the Vietnam war and other hot topics of the time Family members gather around the dying man’s bed in Florida and the dysfunction within this ostensibly stolid family starts to emerge Nathan’s inability to talk anything meaningful with his father other than the Big Bang theory; reticent dentist brother Harry who followed the family expectation of duty to family over his desire to become an actor and conseuently is having multiple affairs with patients and staff while remaining dutifully married to his first and only wife; Nathan’s mother who is reeling from the shock of caring for an overbearing husband over a lifetime and now has to deal with this final mile Nathan seems to be the only one who has soared free of the family yoke but when his father’s last word to him is “Bastard” he agonizes whether he has heard right Any other word but the dreaded B word would be okay for that word would reduce everything he has aspired to and achieved into nothing When Harry finally bursts out and corroborates what the father had said adding that Nathan is a “heartless and callous bastard” and a “destroyer of Jews” the grim returns of Carnovsky are clear It appears that Roth needed to write this book to show the aftermath of his success as a writer And the launching of a bestseller especially one that exposes weak points in a community is not a walk to the bank but the exchange of one set of traumas for another Nathan Zuckerman remained a good alternative for Roth during his career as a writer a persona to be assumed after a major work in his ouevre was published so that he could rationalize its outcome not only from the monetary but from the emotional psychological and spiritual levels This is a good book for those who are familiar with Roth’s work and in particular for those who have read Portnoy’s Complaint and other Zuckerman novels Following the wild success of his novel Carnovsky Nathan Zuckerman has been catapulted into the literary limelight As he ventures out onto the streets of Manhattan he finds himself accosted on all sides the target of admonishers advisers would be literary critics and – worst of all – fansAn incompetent celebrity ill at ease with his newfound fame and unsure of how to live up to his fictional creation’s notoriety Zuckerman flounders his way through a high profile affair the disintegration of his family life and fends off the attentions of his most tenacious fan yet as the turbulent decade of the sixties draws to a close around himBut beneath the uneasy glamour are the spectres of the recently murdered Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr and an unsettled Zuckerman feels himself watched Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography cclapcentercom I am the original author of this essay as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegallyAs regular readers know for a long time I've carried a pretty big chip on my shoulder when it comes to the Postmodernist era of literature which I'm defining here as the period between Kennedy's death in 1963 and September 11th; I suppose it's a natural reaction for any underground artist in fact to rebel against the conventional wisdom they were raised on to yearn for something new and almost diametrically opposite in the arts than what has become the safe status uo But now that I'm a critic instead of a creative and especially now that I'm writing the CCLaP 100 essay series which is as much about examining the grand tapestry of literary history as it is about the individual books themselves I now find it important to try to understand Postmodernism in a complex way to acknowledge not just its limitations but also its strengths and what led its precepts into becoming the basis for a major movement in the first place And there's not much of a better way to do this I thought than to read the remarkable nine book series that Philip Roth has written over the decades on this subject all of them featuring his fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman; because not only is Roth considered one of the greatest writers of the Postmodernist period but his Zuckerman books are an autobiographical look at his life during the Postmodernist years from his college days right at the start of the era to his elderly years of our current times a rare opportunity to examine an entire period of history through the related three act narrative stories of someone who lived through it all and who wrote most of the tales in nearly real time to when they were actually happeningLast year I got a chance to review the first Zuckerman book 1979's The Ghost Writer which I encourage you to read first if you haven't already; taking place exactly twenty years previously it is like I said a look at Roth's early twenties when he was first breaking into the east coast literary scene ie getting his first stories published in magazines like The New Yorker told through the filter of a dinner one night with a Bernard Malamud or Saul Bellow type mentor a fellow Jew but a little older and a lot famous and who has a complicated relationship with his public reputation as a groundbreaking author of contemporary Jewish literature And in fact now that I've read Bellow's Pulitzer winning Humboldt's Gift published just four years before The Ghost Writer I've come to understand just what an homage Roth's book is to his both of them laid back looks at American intellectualism in the post war period and what exact role Jews had in it Today's book then Zuckerman Unbound although written only two years after The Ghost Writer skips ahead an entire decade in its setting it's now 1971 just a year or two since Zuckerman's novel Carnovsky has become a national sensation a naughty but witty smart person's sex romp published at the exact right moment of the countercultural revolution and which has thrust Zuckerman into the role of spokesman for an entire generation of young with it JewsAnd for those who don't know this is indeed exactly what happened in Roth's real life too that after establishing himself at the tail end of Modernism with a series of stories written in the formal style of such Realists as Henry James his filthy but funny Portnoy's Complaint from 1969 became a true highlight of the entire countercultural movement and helped re define young urban Jews into nebbish yet undeniable sex symbols of a new age and this in the same years that Woody Allen was doing the same thing in the movie industry It's something I talk about in detail during my write up of the first Zuckerman book but bears repeating of just how successful such '60s and '70s figures as Roth Allen Lenny Bruce Mel Brooks and others were at normalizing the ins and outs of Jewish life in the eyes of their mostly Christian mainstream audiences so much so that we often forget now just how controversial such a thing was back then As Roth so expertly reminds us in these books for a long time after World War Two Jews were of profoundly different minds regarding just how they should present themselves to society in the first place; after all before the Holocaust anti Semitism was a semi accepted part of life nearly across the planet with it only being the pure brutality of the concentration camps that finally snapped so many Westerners out of their own anti Jewish attitudes Many Jews during the Mid Century Modernist period thought that they should take advantage of this newfound collective goodwill that they should as much as possible simply not remind people that Jews even exist and the few times they do to make sure it's some example of noble selflessness like Anne Frank the dead diary writing teen who single handedly had to do with defining Judaism in the '50s and '60s than any other individual on the planetIt was Roth and other young hip Jews of the countercultural period who changed all this who dared to commit the unspeakable sin of portraying their fellow Jews as actual complex human beings flaws and tics and all who dared to talk about such exclusively Jewish subjects in their work as seder and sitting shiva demanding that mainstream America get caught up to them instead of them constantly having to dumb down their lives to a lily white Christian audience And like I said although these artists of the Postmodernist period did such a good job at this that we barely even uestion such a thing any to the generation of Jews who survived the Holocaust this was seen as the ultimate in self hating behavior to air their community's dirty laundry to a group of misunderstanding Caucasians who just thirty years ago had been slaughtering their people by the millions and in these older Jews' minds were just itching for an excuse to start doing so againOr to cite an excellent example from the book itself look at the consternation that is caused by including a spindly loser Jew as a character based believe it or not on tainted uiz show fallen hero Herb Stempel who for a time in the '50s was the most famous living Jew in the entire United States personally repulsive to most and always with an anti Semitic conspiracy theory whenever something doesn't go his wayor in other words Uncle Leo from Seinfeld HELLLLOOO Jerry It's remarkable I think that the mention of a character type that now elicits fond and knowing laughter was just forty years ago seen by most Jews as the height of race sabotaging behavior; and that is the power of Postmodernism that writers like Roth and others really were able to bring about a world where Seinfeld is now one of the most beloved television shows in history a world where Yiddish terms now pepper the everyday vernacular of most Christians and where nearly every suburban grocery store now has an entire aisle just for various ethnic speciality foods from around the world And that like I said is the whole reason I'm reading the Zuckerman books in the first place to understand all the remarkable things that the Postmodernists actually accomplished instead of just always concentrating on the endless snotty irony and pop culture worship that became unfortunate side effects of the ageUltimately I can give this book no better of a compliment than to state the following that reading this slyly funny slow moving character based story made me understand what it must've been like to be a middle aged intellectual in the early '80s you know living in a rehabbed attic loft in Minneapolis or Denver watching The Big Chill and thirtysomething reading insightful novels about the human condition whose covers are rendered in big looping script typefaces having debates at dinner parties over the continued relevance of Norman Mailer Reading Zuckerman Unbound felt exactly like this like getting literally transported back to this era and it's easy to see why it's arguably the best and certainly one of the most popular of all the books in the entire Zuckerman series It makes me glad that I took on this project in the first place and I'm now looking highly forward to tackling the next book in the series 1983's The Anatomy Lesson The second outing for Roth's alter ego Zuckerman sees him achieving remarkable successHis novel Carnovsky is a sensation turning him into a celebrity But with fame also comes notoriety The sexual nature of the novel leaves Zuckerman facing enmity as well as adulationThe parallels with Roth are plain For Carnovsky you can substitute Roth's second novel Portnoy's Complaint with its onanistic obsessionZuckerman Unbound is perhaps a kind of apologia for Portnoy's Complaint although that's a book I love but it is also very funnyRoth creates a great nemesis for Zuckerman in the shape of uiz contestant Alvin Pepler who seems to be stalking Zucker and may have malevolent intentions There are echoes of Pupkin in Scorsese's King of Comedy in PeplerAnd even 35 years after its publication and 50 years after its set Zuckerman Unbound feels very contemporary in its depiction of celebrity There may be no social media but Pepler feels like a classic troll And the same celebrity feeding frenzy with its half truths and downright lies is present and correct It's hard to read whether Pepler is a harmless eccentric or a murderous stalkerBut the novel takes a different direction in its final pages becoming poignant and sad as we spend time at the death bed of Zuckerman's father lending it a surprising depth and making it than mere comic confectionZuckerman Unbound may not be up there with Roth's later state of the nation novels or indeed be as compelling as Zuckerman's first outing in The Ghost Writer but it still has lots to offer not least the ever present uality of Roth's prose Even slightly better than The Ghost Writer amazing characters beautiful prose 4 i must not be the only one who feels cheated when they read a roth novel always expecting because of his super sized reputation only to find two dimensional characters caricatures really with even simplistic portrayals of women to accompany his petty whining and shallow revelations do reviewers not dare criticize how lame it is to pat yourself on the back for a character's attempt at a one liner or note that every character delivers speeches in the same voice without the slightest hesitation is there a part of the city i'm unaware of where people give monologues as if they were the only one on stage ah yes times suare The day before Philip Roth died this book appeared on my office's giveaway shelf and I snagged it I don't think this coincidence has any cosmic significance but it sure was convenientI think Roth has fallen out of favor a bit among my peers even in his NYT obituary he was linked so emphatically to Updike and Bellow and it's true that the sex crazed male novelists of the middle of the last century now seem perverse only in their ridiculousness Certainly the sexual attitudes that once seemed daringly offensive now come off as offensive only because they're dated and out of touch See for example John Updike not understanding the very great mystery of how women peeBut I've always thought Roth stood out from this pack He wrote some ridiculous sex stuff sure but always with a level of self awareness and humor And his work was about so many things as coincidentally conveniently this novel perfectly illustrates In it Nathan Zuckerman has just struck it rich with his version of Portnoy and the darkly comedic cost of fame is rippling through his life starting with strangers ogling him on the bus and escalating to kidnapping threats against his mother But really the book is about how Zuckerman's choices in work and in love have affected his relationships with his ex wife his parents his brother; not for nothing is the final chapter called Look Homeward Angel Like Thomas Wolfe Zuckerman can never go home again; none of us can go back and do it again or ever recapture the pastBut Roth now to my great sadness wholly confined to that past is still worth reading and remembering and rediscovering And I think unlike those contemporaries of his he will stand the test of time


About the Author: Philip Roth

Philip Milton Roth was an American novelist He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye Columbus winner of 1960's National Book Award cemented it with his 1969 bestseller Portnoy's Complaint and has continued to write critically acclaimed works many of which feature his fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman The Zuckerman novels began with The Ghost Writer in 1979 and in


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