Scott's Reviews > The Counterlife

The Counterlife by Philip Roth
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Apr 06, 2012

really liked it
Read from April 06 to 15, 2012

I was not sure how many stars I would give to this novel. If you've followed my writing about my reading for any time, you now that I'm rather ambivalent about Philip Roth. In the late nineties I read Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint and enjoyed them. Portnoy's became one of my favourite novels. However, many other Roth novels I read I did not like. Some that were highly acclaimed and award-winning, I did not even finish (I delighted in the way Christopher Hitchens would attack each new Roth novel as being only more masturbatory fantasy). Only American Pastoral did I really like and find to be a great novel. I quit collecting and reading his works. The Counterlife has lain on my shelf for years.

This is a series of possible stories of writer Nathan Zuckermann and his brother Henry. In one imagined life, Henry dies, in another he runs off to Judea to become a settler. In one Henry dies, in another he has a wild plane ride, and in still another he gets married and moves to England.

The opening story, "Basel," imagines Henry's death and is wickedly funny. As a stand alone short story it would probably collect five stars.

I liked the opening of the second story, "Judea" and its exploration of the religio-political themes of the modern State of Israel. However, it became overwrought, I felt near the end. I was beginning to be disappointed in the book.

"Aloft" continued the decline, ironically, with long-winded passages on Jewish identity and then a wild, over-the-top plot development that came close to having me put the book down.

"Glouchestershire" was a mixed bag, but way too long-winded. It's exploration of sibling relationships, a theme throughout the novel, engaged me. This theme is one reason I ended up liking the book. I keep contemplating sending it to my sister.

The final story, "Christendom" is quite good, almost as strong as "Basel," except that we could do without the final dozen pages or so. They were filled with unnecessary explanations and attempts to draw the various stories together.

So, for a book so filled with missteps and things I didn't like, how could I give it four stars? Because it really resonated with me and issues I've dealt with in the last year of family systems, siblings, being an "other," ambition, and personal identity. Roth grasped feelings and experiences that I've had and gave me some new ways to think about them. That's a successful novel, I think.

A theme in my recent reading is the man who will not be controlled by the ressentiment of the weak or the stupid -- Steve Jobs, Old Jules Sandoz, Nathan Zuckermann. Along that theme this novel even inspired me to write my own Roth-like short story.
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Reading Progress

04/14/2012 page 296
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