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  • "This Obsessive Reinvention of the Real":Speculative Narrative in Philip Roth's the Counterlife
  • Debra Shostak (bio)

When Philip Roth opens his autobiography, The Facts, with a letter addressed to his novelistic alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, he observes that the most recent novel to give Nathan voice, The Counterlife (1986), "can be read as fiction about structure" (6). Fiction about fiction is, of course, not new among Roth's novels; My Life as a Man (1974), for example, charts the sources of fiction in trauma and repression and raises the specter of fiction's enslavement to autobiography. Each of the three earlier novels about Zuckerman, published together as Zuckerman Bound (1985)—The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), and The Anatomy Lesson (1983)—as well as the volume's "Epilogue," the novella The Prague Orgy, meditates in one way or another on the relations between invented worlds of fiction and the life of their inventor. But not until The Counterlife does Roth fully explore the theoretical implications that exist for the structure of fiction or the self in the uneasy equations between art and life. Roth thematizes structure in the novel, shattering narrative conventions, deconstructing the unitary self by multiplying stories about the self, and opening the fiction out to contemplate its own making. [End Page 197]

One of the first things a reader notices is the novel's radically speculative nature, in the sense that Roth foregrounds the speculation and invention inherent in the act of writing. "Nathan,"1 the characteristic narrative voice, imagines a scenario, fleshes it out into fully realized episodes, and then drops or reverses it. Passages that are the focal points of such speculations are often linguistically marked by such phrases as "what if . . . ?" "if . . . then," "suppose that. . . ." An obvious example occurs in the first chapter when Zuckerman ponders his brother's decision to have coronary bypass surgery because his medication is making him impotent: "What if instead of the brother whose obverse existence mine inferred—and who himself untwinnishly inferred me—I had been the Zuckerman boy in that agony?" (42). Nathan's "what if" is precisely elaborated in Chapter Four, when Nathan himself dies on the operating table—a variation on the plot of the first chapter. (While reading the first chapter, of course, one does not yet know its irony—that Nathan seems to have invented the narrative of his brother's impotence, surgery, and death.) Chapter Five makes no reference to Nathan's illness or death; it has evaporated as a narrative fact. The "fact" that remains is Nathan's urgent act of imagining other selves, other realities, other others, to the extent that the novel denies the reader the comfort of a recognizable central self or central set of events from which the alternatives develop. To use a musical analogy, in The Counterlife Roth composes a set of variations without an initial or final statement of the main theme. The novel then becomes a series of propositions, hypothetically limitless and bound to no standard of coherence.

The speculative form of The Counterlife invites inquiry into three distinct but related questions about the sources, meaning, and power of narrative, questions that in turn bear upon the postmodern understanding of the self. What are the engines of desire—psychic desire, narrative desire—that produce counterlives, counterstories? What does Roth's meditation on autobiography, literally the writing of/about the life of the self, suggest about the relation of subjectivity to textuality? How, finally, does Roth's speculative narrative affect the authority of reader and text? As I take up each of these questions in turn, I will argue that in textualizing the [End Page 198] self, in seeing the self as narrative, as a discursive invention, Roth recovers metafiction from the implicit nihilism and anxiety of the postmodern decentered or indeterminate self. Instead, by refusing to allay the doubts it raises—in Nathan, in the reader—the novel 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. For what makes The Counterlife stand out among metafictional exercises is its paradoxical commitment to—and...


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pp. 197-215
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