In a moment when many writers struggled to lay claim to one career, Philip Roth had three or four. After publishing the irreverent story collection Goodbye, Columbus, the early Roth wrote two mannered novels set in the Midwest, remarkable less for how they were composed than—at least in the case of Letting Go—for how they portrayed a lost generation still coming into its own. But then the 1960s hit and starting with his 1969 Portnoy’s Complaint, we got to know another Roth: Roth II’s writing was colloquial, angry, ribald, often antic, and exhaustingly self-obsessed. His titular character, Alex Portnoy, a “Raskolnikov of jerking off,” is a self-destructive analysand cynically exploiting the era’s spirit of sexual liberation for his interests alone. (“Socialism exists,” Portnoy thinks when with one partner, “but so too do spirochetes, my love!”) With him also came a new style, a simultaneously compelling and offensive voice—one part Lionel Trilling, another Lenny Bruce—that slighted nearly all interested parties: American Jews, the last of the New York intellectuals (Irving Howe observed that the “cruelest thing one can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is read it twice”), and second-wave feminists, who rightly found in Portnoy a prime example of the era’s still-standing patriarchy.
Roth’s own complaint was that many of his critics confused Portnoy of Portnoy’s with the real-life Roth—and out of this confusion we got Roth’s most long-lived character: Nathan Zuckerman, author of the best-selling Carnovsky, who between dodging street-side denunciations plots against a Howe-like literary critic and militant of “grown-upism” by the name of Milton Appel. With Zuckerman, Roth II also began to play a game: In a series of loosely autobiographical novels—The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy—a doubling of sorts began to take place between Zuckerman and Roth, Carnovsky and Portnoy. As the series goes on, Zuckerman, who is not Roth, begins to resemble Carnovsky, who is not Portnoy. When Nathan Z. beats a fast retreat upstate to visit an elderly writer friend, he reads Henry James and masturbates in the writer’s study. When he travels to Prague in the wake of the 1968 crackdown, he spends his first night taking in the city’s “light entertainment,” including some exposed genitalia. Over and over again, we’re told Zuckerman, who isn’t Roth, isn’t Carnovsky, who isn’t Portnoy. But in the end who knows?
By the late 1980s, Roth II (and, one must admit, Roth II’s readers) began to tire of the trick, and Roth III came onto the scene. Still laced with libidinal anxiety, the third Roth made high art out of the second Roth’s vices: His novels were more carefully crafted, his prose much closer to the chest, his narratives more intricate and architecturally sound. Sabbath’s Theater featured a Portnoy-like puppeteer who simplifies life, the “way a monk devotes himself to God,” around sex; he’s revolting in more ways than one, and the very symbol of how sexual liberation can end up doing a lot more for men than women, if men continue to dominate nearly all other spheres of life. But with Roth III we also got a series of generative experiments in form. In The Counterlife, Zuckerman returns, though in a book very unlike Roth’s earlier ones: The novel attempts to follow the many possible paths of a life can take. In Operation Shylock, we are introduced to a succession of compelling pretenders: a fictional Roth set to reclaim his identity from an impostor Roth who is set to reclaim Jewish identity from the state of Israel. Roth was back at his old game. But this time, the writing was less defensive and inward-turned, less Raskolnikov with a pen and more at the behest of Roth’s earnest desire to make better sense of the world.