Review

The Counterlife

by Philip Roth



THE COUNTERLIFE may be Philip Roth's most imaginative work of
fiction. It is certainly his most original. It speaks of the
different paths that a life can take, of the motivations behind the
choices that individuals make, and of the repercussions of those
choices. It also delves into the Diaspora and the reality of being
a Jewish American. Divided into five sections --- Basel, Judea,
Aloft, Gloucestershire, and Christendom --- THE COUNTERLIFE
explores the fate of Henry and Nathan Zuckerman as their lives
revolve around one event.

In Basel, Henry lies dead in a coffin as his brother Nathan
contemplates the events that put him there. A heart condition and
medicine that made him impotent sent Henry to the operating table
for surgery that was risky but would make him able to perform
sexually again. THE COUNTERLIFE that Henry was leading, unbeknownst
to his wife, becomes the focus of Nathan's thoughts.

In the second section, Henry has survived the operation but takes
his new lease on life as a push toward his religious homeland and
embraces the doctrine of Zionism in Judea. Nathan, at the urging of
Henry's wife, goes to see Henry. "The relationship to Henry was the
most elemental connection I had left, and however vexing its
surface had become after the long years of our estrangement, what
was evoked in me by Carol's call was the need to be responsible not
so much to the disapproving brother with whom I'd already come to
blows but to the little boy in the flannel pajamas who was known to
sleepwalk when he was overexcited."

In Aloft, Nathan contemplates the visit to his brother while at the
same time being pursued by a young Jewish man in awe of Zuckerman,
the writer. The section moves from comic intrigue to a poignant
philosophical exploration by Nathan that hits on the very theme of
the novel. "Zionism, as I understand it, originated not only in the
deep Jewish dream of escaping the danger of insularity and the
cruelties of social injustice and persecution but out of a highly
conscious desire to be divested of virtually everything that had
come to seem, to the Zionists as much as to the Christian
Europeans, distinctively Jewish behavior --- to reverse the very
form of Jewish existence. The construction of a counterlife that is
one's own anti-myth was at its very core. It was a species of
fabulous utopianism, a manifesto for human transformation...
"

Gloucestershire has Nathan facing the heart operation in the wake
of his impotence due to medication, while Christendom offers yet
another counterlife for Nathan as he struggles for happiness and
identity in a London where the shards of anti-Semitism fray the
edges of his fragile existence.

It is the place of a novelist to play God with the lives of his
characters, and who can blame him if he wants to explore the
multitude of options available to him, for real life offers us but
one chance. Roth displays his cunning talent as he weaves the
various threads of choice into a coat of possibilities that Nathan
Zuckerman tries on again and again.

Reviewed by Vern Wiessner on January 21, 2011

The Counterlife
by Philip Roth

  • Publication Date: August 6, 1996
  • Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0679749047
  • ISBN-13: 9780679749042