Well, I finally re-read Portnoy’s Complaint, written in 1967 (the year I graduated law school). You can appreciate the controversy over the scatalogical language and subject matter at the time (today, it would be more ho-hum, I guess) and you still have to take some deep breaths to get beyond it. Once you do that, Portnoy becomes a very clever, well written satirical book. Poor Alexander Portnoy, growing up in the house where his father has chronic unrelieved constipation, where Alex himself has a continual case of what I would term pseudo-diarrhea, and where is mother has definite opinions about everything and is certain that she is always right. Of course, Portnoy eventually sort of escapes his family and tries to seek appropriate relationships with members of the other sex (often just in his imagination), and sort of struggles with his exaggerated relationship with The Monkey (she is called that because she likes to watch others having sex, while she eats bananas). Poor Dr. Spielvogel has a lot of work ahead of him.
Then I finally read Zuckerman Unbound, the second of nine books featuring Roth’s sort-of alter ego. In the first major Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer, the young would-be writer Zuckerman visits the home of older writer E.I. Lonoff, and learns some of the domestic drama of the Lonoff home. In Zuckerman Unbound, we find that Zuckerman has written Carnovsky, a novel which has hit the country by storm, and which has turned Zuckerman’s life around. Yes, he can no longer lead the simple life, try as he might. Recognized on the street by strangers, he is stalked by one, another would-be writer from the same Newark neighborhood, who threatens him with, a mixture of fact and fantasy, he has a brief relationship with a famous actress who has her own relationship problems, and he sets his relationship with his brother, which permeates several future novels. How much is Philip Roth Nathan Zuckerman and how much is Carnovsky Portnoy’s complaint. Much has been written – we do not know the answer.
The third book I read was a more recent book, Deception, and I found this one a bit harder to follow, in large part because of its format. It’s not a Zuckerman book, but concerns another writer and his mistress in London. The writer is married, the mistress is married, and their affair is not exactly what you would have imagined. The amount of physical sex, if any, is unclear – their afternoon affair is largely a matter of talking out their problems and frustrations – with their mates and with each other. And the affair ends, and others take it place, but they do come together at the end. And none of the affairs are satisfactory, because each character has two lives – a real life and a fantasy life, and it is the fantasy life that leads to an alternative real life, which in turn generates its own fantasy life. Never ending, it would appear. Why is the book hard to follow? Because its not a narrative – it is all dialogue – and it jumps from here to there and back to here again. Just hard to follow.