Roth Bound

by Carol Iannone

Although it surprised many, Phillip Roth’s retirement from writing fiction could be seen as a while in coming. For one thing, there was the change in how he used his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, in more recent novels. Where the earlier Zuckerman, as in the Zuckerman Bound group, had been an insatiably sexual and vital if also frustrated actor in his own life, the later Zuckerman, impotent at that, is more or less passive, an observer and narrator of the stories of others.

The device was not unfruitful by any means and produced at least one remarkable novel, American Pastoral, about the wreckage of the Sixties counterculture. But it was as if Roth could go no further with his examination of his own experience. When he finally did allow the impotent Zuckerman to be again the main actor in the story, in the anemic Exit Ghost, the last Zuckerman novel, it was to bring his character to the dead end that emphasis on sexuality had become for him. In the penultimate Zuckerman, The Human Stain, a professor rejects his African-American roots and passes for white and Jewish, only to be ensnarled in political correctness and anti-Semitism.

Both the protagonist-professor and the narrator-Zuckerman find that they are ultimately impotent to affect the course of events or even to understand them fully. It’s as if Roth had been acknowledging for some time that his approach to fiction and the intellectual limits he accepted for himself fell short of encompassing the truth.