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His Long Ordeal by Laughter
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  ZUCKERMANBOUND A Trilogy andEpilogue.  By PhilipRoth.   May 19, 1985 His Long Ordeal by Laughter By HAROLD BLOOM HILIP ROTH'S Zuckerman Bound bindstogether The Ghost Writer, ZuckermanUnbound and The Anatomy Lesson, adding to themas epilogue a wild short novel, The Prague Orgy, which is at once the bleakest and the funniest writingRoth has done. The totality is certainly the novelist'sfinest achievement to date, eclipsing even his bestsingle fictions, the exuberantly notorious Portnoy'sComplaint and the undervalued and ferocious MyLife as a Man. Zuckerman Bound is a classicapologia, an aggressive defense of Roth's moral stance as an author. Its cosmosderives candidly from the Freudian interpretation of ambivalence as beingprimal, and the Kafkan evasion of interpretation as being unbearable. Rothknows that Freud and Kafka mark the srcins and limits of a literary culture,American and Jewish, which has an uneasy relationship to Talmudic Judaism andits waning culture. Freud's psychologizing of every religious and moral impulse,and Kafka's imaginative despair as to whether these same impulses ever couldfind realistic embodiment again, have combined to render problematical theJewish tradition's hopes for human nature. I suspect that Roth knows and acceptsalso what his surrogate, Zuckerman, is sometimes too outraged to recognize:breaking a new road causes outrage in others and suffering in himself. Perhapsthat is the Jewish version of Emerson's American Law of Compensation: nothingis got for nothing. Zuckerman Bound merits something reasonably close to the highest level of esthetic praise for tragicomedy, partly because as a formal totality it becomesmuch more than the sum of its parts. Those parts are surprisingly diverse: TheGhost Writer is a Jamesian parable of fictional influence, economical andshapely, beautifully modulated, while Zuckerman Unbound is morecharacteristically Rothian, being freer in form and more joyously expressionisticin its diction. The Anatomy Lesson is a farce bordering on fantasy, closer inmode and spirit to Nathanael West than is anything else by Roth. With ThePrague Orgy, Roth has transcended himself, or perhaps shown himself andothers that, being just past 50, he has scarcely begun to display his powers. Ihave read nothing else in recent American fiction that rivals Thomas Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49 and episodes like the story of Bryon the light bulb in thesame author's Gravity's Rainbow. The Prague Orgy is of that disturbingeminence: obscenely outrageous and yet brilliantly reflective of a paranoidreality that has become universal. B UT the Rothian difference from NathanaelWest and Thomas Pynchon also should be emphasized. Roth paradoxically is  still engaged in moral prophecy; he continues to be outraged by the outrageous -in societies, others and himself. There is in him nothing of West's gnosticpreference for the posture of the satanic editor, Shrike, in Miss Lonelyhearts, or of Pynchon's cabalistic doctrine of sado-anarchism. Roth's negativeexuberance is not in the service of a negative theology, but intimates instead anostalgia for the morality once engendered by the Jewish normative tradition.This is the harsh irony, obsessively exploited throughout Zuckerman Bound, of the attack made upon Zuckerman's Carnovsky (Roth's Portnoy's Complaint )by the literary critic Milton Appel (Irving Howe). Zuckerman has received amortal wound from Appel, and Roth endeavors to commemorate the wound andthe wounder, in the spirit of James Joyce permanently impaling the Irish poet,physician and general roustabout, Oliver St. John Gogarty, as the immortallyegregious Malachi (Buck) Mulligan of Ulysses. There is plenty of literaryprecedent for settling scores in this way; it is as old as Hellenistic Alexandria,and as recent as Saul Bellow's portrait of the novelist and teacher Jack Ludwig asValentine Gersbach in Herzog. Roth, characteristically scrupulous, presentsAppel as dignified, serious and sincere, and Zuckerman as dangerously lunatic inthis matter, but since the results are endlessly hilarious, the revenge is sharpnevertheless. Zuckerman Unbound makes clear, at least to me, that Roth indeed is a Jewishwriter in a sense that Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud are not, and do not careto be. Bellow and Malamud, in their fiction, strive to be North American Jewishonly as Tolstoy was Russian, or Faulkner was American Southern. Roth seemsprophetic in the biblical tradition. His absolute concern never ceases to be thepain of the relations between children and parents, and between husband andwife, and in him this pain invariably results from the incommensurabilitybetween a rigorously moral normative tradition whose expectations rarely can besatisfied, and the reality of the way we live now. Zuckerman's insane resentmentof the moralizing Milton Appel, and of even fiercer feminist critics, is adeliberate self-parody of Roth's more-than-ironic reaction to how badly he hasbeen read. Against both Appel and the swarms of maenads, Roth defendsZuckerman (and so himself) as a kind of Talmudic Orpheus, by defining any manas clay with aspirations. What wins over the reader is that both defense and definition are conveyed by thehighest humor now being written. The Anatomy Lesson and The PragueOrgy, in particular, provoke a cleansing and continuous laughter, sometimes sointense that in itself it becomes astonishingly painful. One of the many estheticgains of binding together the entire Zuckerman ordeal (it cannot be called a saga)is to let the reader experience the gradual acceleration of wit from the gentleChekhovian wistfulness of The Ghost Writer on to the Gogolian sense of theridiculous in Zuckerman Unbound and then to the boisterous Westian farce of  The Anatomy Lesson, only to end in the merciless Kafkan irrealism of ThePrague Orgy. I will center most of what follows on The Prague Orgy, both because it is theonly part of Zuckerman Bound that is new, and because it is the best of Roth, akind of coda to all his fiction so far. Haunting it necessarily is the spirit of Kafka,a dangerous influence upon any writer, and particularly dangerous, until now, forRoth. Witness his short novel, The Breast, his major esthetic disaster,surpassing such livelier failures as Our Gang and The Great AmericanNovel. Against the error of The Breast can be set the funniest pages in The  Professor of Desire, where the great dream concerning Kafka's whore isclearly the imaginative prelude to The Prague Orgy. David Kepesh, Roth'sProfessor of Desire, falls asleep in Prague and confronts everything I everhoped for, a guided visit with an official interpreter to an old woman, possiblyonce Kafka's whore. The heart of her revelation is Rothian rather than Kafkan, asshe assimilates the greatest of modern Jewish writers to all the other ghosts of her Jewish clientele: 'They were clean and they were gentlemen. As God is my witness, they neverbeat on my backside. Even in bed they had manners.' 'But is there anything about Kafka in particular that she remembers? I didn'tcome here, to her, to Prague, to talk about nice Jewish boys.' She gives some thought to the question; or, more likely, no thought. Just sitsthere trying out being dead. 'You see, he wasn't so special,' she finally says. 'I don't mean he wasn't agentleman. They were all gentlemen.' This could be the quintessential Roth passage: the Jewish joke turned, not againstitself, nor against the Jews, and certainly not against Kafka, but against history,against the way things were, and are, and yet will be. Unlike the humor of Nathanael West (particularly in The Dream Life of Balso Snell ) and of WoodyAllen, there is no trace of Jewish anti-Semitism in Roth's pained laughter. Roth'swit uncannily follows the psychic pattern set out by Freud in his late paper on Humor (1928), which speculates that the superego allows jesting so as to speaksome kindly words of comfort to the intimidated ego. The ego of poorZuckerman is certainly intimidated enough, and the reader rejoices at beingallowed to share some hilarious words of comfort with him.When last we saw the afflicted Zuckerman, at the close of The AnatomyLesson, he had progressed (or regressed) from painfully lying back on his play-mat, Roget's Thesaurus propped beneath his head and four women serving hismany needs, to wandering the corridors of a university hospital, a patient playingat being an intern. A few years later, a physically recovered Zuckerman is inPrague, as visiting literary lion, encountering so paranoid a social reality thatNew York seems by contrast the Forest of Arden. Zuckerman, the Americanauthority on Jewish demons, quests for the unpublished Yiddish stories of theelder Sinovsky, perhaps murdered by the Nazis. The exiled younger Sinovsky'sabandoned wife, Olga, guards the manuscripts in Prague. In a deliberate parodyof Henry James's Aspern Papers, Zuckerman needs somehow to seduce thealcoholic and insatiable Olga into releasing stories supposedly worthy of SholomAleichem or Isaac Babel, written in the Yiddish of Flaubert. Being Zuckerman, he seduces no one, and secures the Yiddish manuscriptsanyway, only to have them confiscated by the Czechoslovak Minister of Cultureand his thugs, who proceed to expel Zuckerman the Zionist agent back to thelittle world around the corner in New York City. In a final scene subtler, sadderand funnier than all previous Roth, the frustrated Zuckerman endures themoralizing of the Minister of Culture, who attacks America for having forgottenthat masterpiece by Betty MacDonald, The Egg and I. Associating himself with K., Kafka's hero in The Castle, Zuckerman is furious at his expulsion, and  utters a lament for the more overt paranoia he must abandon: Here where there's no nonsense about purity and goodness, where the division isnot that easy to discern between the heroic and the perverse, where every sort of repression foments a parody of freedom and the suffering of their historicalmisfortune engenders in its imaginative victims these clownish forms of humandespair. That farewell-to-Prague has as its undersong: here where Zuckerman is not ananomaly, but indeed a model of decorum and restraint compared to anyone elsewho is at all interesting. Perhaps there is another undertone: a farewell-to-Zuckerman on Roth's part. The author of Zuckerman Bound at last may haveexorcised the afterglow of Portnoy's Complaint. There is an eloquent plea forrelease in The Anatomy Lesson, where Zuckerman tries to renounce his fate asa writer: It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom -not on a schedule, in commandof yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything.But once one's writing, it's all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. Z UCKERMAN bound, indeed, but bound inparticular to the most ancient of covenants -that is Roth's particular election, orself-election. In his critical book, Reading Myself and Others (1975), the lastand best essay, Looking at Kafka, comments on the change manifested inKafka's later fiction, observing that it is: Touched by a spirit of personal reconciliation and sardonic self-acceptance, by atolerance of one's own brand of madness . . . the piercing masochistic irony . . .has given way here to a critique of the self and its preoccupations that, thoughbordering on mockery, no longer seeks to resolve itself in images of theuttermost humiliation and defeat . . . Yet there is more here than a metaphor forthe insanely defended ego, whose striving for invulnerability produces adefensive system that must in its turn become the object of perpetual concern -there is also a very unromantic and hardheaded fable about how and why art ismade, a portrait of the artist in all his ingenuity, anxiety, isolation, dissatisfaction,relentlessness, obsessiveness, secretiveness, paranoia, and self-addiction, aportrait of the magical thinker at the end of his tether. Roth intended this as commentary on Kafka's short story The Burrow. Eloquent and poignant, it is far more accurate as a descriptive prophecy of  Zuckerman Bound. Kafka resists nearly all interpretation, so that what mostneeds interpretation in him is his evasion of interpretation. That Roth readshimself into his precursor is a normal and healthy procedure in the literarystruggle for self-identification. Unlike Kafka, Roth tries to evade, notinterpretation, but guilt, partly because he lives the truth of Kafka's terrible mottoof the Penal Colony: Guilt is never to be doubted. Roth has earned a permanentplace in American literature by a comic genius that need never be doubted again,wherever it chooses to take him next. Return to the Books Home Page Home  | Site Index  | Site Search  | Forums  | Archives  | Marketplace
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