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Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth
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A Wake-up call for Writers Seeking Fame

Every writer aspiring for fame and fortune would be advised to read this book. It will certainly cool any wannabe’s ardour.

Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, has just vaulted into the millionaire ranks with the success of his fourth novel Carnovsky, a proxy for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint. The problem is that Nathan doesn’t know how to live like a millionaire: he still visits the neighbourhood sandwich shop, travels on the subway and is not very much into socializing. He has just left his third wife because he tires of self contained women and needs to find his freedom (conversely, his first two wives were needy women whom he needed to escape from too). The additional problem is that he is now considered a traitor by the Jews of Newark for having exposed all their quirks in his novel. He feels he is being followed, that the perpetrators mean him and his family bodily harm; how much of this is paranoia vs. reality is revealed as the book unfolds.

Central to his paranoia is a character called Al Peppler who accosts Nathan on the street and sticks with him like a leech. Peppler knows everything about Nathan, and is a two-time war vet who was making it big on a TV game show when he was cut down to size due to his Jewishness, he claims. Peppler is now courting a music producer to get his exposé novel on the state of America converted into a Broadway musical, and wants Nathan’s opinion and approval. When Nathan shies away, he gets threatening phone calls from people demanding ransom money for a kidnap yet to happen on his mother; Nathan wonders whether the voice is that of Peppler.

Nathan’s agent seems to know the answers to this condition, as he has managed many artists through their breakout phase with its attendant psychoses, and tries to get Nathan to scale up: date a Hollywood actress, be seen in society circles, buy a car, upgrade his wardrobe, get a bodyguard. Nathan tries to comply but he is stuck in who he really is, and with the guilt that perhaps he did let his people down with his breakout novel.

The novel suddenly dives into the family as Zuckerman Sr., Nathan’s father, a veteran sufferer of strokes, suffers a fatal coronary. Zuckerman Sr. was a career chiropodist who was also a great letter writer, writing copiously to presidents and vice presidents to express his views on Israel, the Vietnam war and other hot topics of the time. Family members gather around the dying man’s bed in Florida and the dysfunction within this ostensibly stolid family starts to emerge: Nathan’s inability to talk anything meaningful with his father other than the Big Bang theory; reticent dentist brother Harry who followed the family expectation of duty to family over his desire to become an actor and consequently is having multiple affairs with patients and staff while remaining dutifully married to his first and only wife; Nathan’s mother who is reeling from the shock of caring for an overbearing husband over a lifetime and now has to deal with this final mile. Nathan seems to be the only one who has soared free of the family yolk, but when his father’s last word to him is “Bastard,” he agonizes whether he has heard right. Any other word but the dreaded B word would be okay, for that word would reduce everything he has aspired to and achieved into nothing. When Harry finally bursts out and corroborates what the father had said, adding that Nathan is a “heartless and callous bastard” and a “destroyer of Jews” the grim returns of Carnovsky are clear.

It appears that Roth needed to write this book to show the aftermath of his success as a writer. And the launching of a bestseller, especially one that exposes weak points in a community, is not a walk to the bank but the exchange of one set of traumas for another. Nathan Zuckerman remained a good alternative for Roth during his career as a writer, a persona to be assumed after a major work in his ouevre was published so that he could rationalize its outcome not only from the monetary but from the emotional, psychological and spiritual levels. This is a good book for those who are familiar with Roth’s work, and in particular for those who have read Portnoy’s Complaint and other Zuckerman novels.
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Started Reading
October 8, 2018 – Shelved
October 8, 2018 – Finished Reading

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