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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 422-443



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Postmodern Jewish Identity in Philip Roth's The Counterlife

Derek Parker Royal


Of all Philip Roth's novels, The Counterlife (1986) is perhaps his most pivotal. Read within the context of his oeuvre, it occupies a curious and highly revealing place in the author's literary trajectory. The novel is significant for several reasons. First, when it was written it was the most intricate and experimental (and postmodern) work Roth had ever created, especially in terms of (re)writing the self. He had attempted something like this in My Life As a Man (1974), but the textual ambitions of this exploration in The Counterlife make the earlier text pale by comparison. Second, it is the novel that temporarily suspends Roth's most significant narrative voice, Nathan Zuckerman (at one point in the novel he dies), and largely paves the way for Roth's next four contributions, the autobiographical works. As he does later in such texts as The Facts (1988) and Operation Shylock (1993), Roth explores the possibilities of the writer (in this case Zuckerman) recreating himself through a series of deceptive reinventions. Also, it is Roth's first novel to be set, at least partially, in Israel. Alexander Portnoy visits the country in Portnoy's Complaint (1969), but his stay is brief and, compared to the sojourn of Nathan and his brother, Henry, does not function as a significant determinant of self. [End Page 422] Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the novel foregrounds a desire to understand the Jewish ethnic self, a theme that permeates the entire novel. Although Roth had been concerned with Jewishness in earlier works, there was not the overriding need for the male subject (whether Portnoy, Gabe Wallach, Peter Tarnopol, or David Kepesh) to find his place within the larger ethnic community, in either Israel or America, and define himself in relation to it. If anything, the ethnic subject attempted to turn away from his community, as is the case with Portnoy. And even when the protagonist undertook a journey back toward his ethnic home, as Neil Klugman does in Goodbye, Columbus (1989), the act was performed on a more limited personal scale, ignoring issues of history. In The Counterlife, however, Zuckerman gravitates toward his ethnic roots in his native United States, in England, and most certainly in the Israeli homeland, a territory that Zuckerman's English wife, Maria, refers to as "the Jewish heart of darkness" (263). For these reasons, it is reasonable to consider the novel as the starting point in Roth's exploration of postmodern ethnicity. It is his first work to take on fully the ethnic self and to do so within the boundaries of postmodernism.

The critical consensus is that The Counterlife marks a turning point in Roth's career. 1 The novel has received particular attention in light of its focus on issues surrounding identity and the ways in which the self is inscribed. For example, Brian Finney reads The Counterlife as a prelude to Roth's "autobiography," The Facts, an exercise demonstrating that the text of a life (or in other words, the inscription of identity) can only be rendered in relation to other textual lives. Focusing more on issues of Jewishness, Sylvia Barack Fishman argues that the novel is part of Roth's dialectical questioning of ethnic authenticity. Although privileging Operation Shylock as a more ambitious work, she nonetheless sees The Counterlife's significance as based on the fundamental question, What defines a contemporary Jew? (133) Debra Shostak, in her astute reading of the novel, approaches Roth's text as a speculative narrative underscoring the fluidity of identity. She believes that the novel's strength lies in the fact that it never falls prey to the metafictional nihilism embedded in many other contemporary narratives, and instead "challenges us to transcend the anxiety of the interpretive act, to embrace and be liberated by the duplicity of reality itself and not merely the duplicity of language" (199). Such readings underscore the centrality of this experimental [End Page 423...

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