Wyatt Mason‘s tribute to Philip Roth‘s 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer, on Critical Mass is brief, but he clears enough room to challenge the idea that Roth is a writer of narrow range. “Despite a reputation for monomaniacal attention to fixed themes—sex; women; writers; writing; Jews; Israel—Roth has exhibited such formal variety from book to book that where you choose to jump in can create very different impressions of Roth’s novelistic nature,” he writes. “It would be difficult to gather three more different novels by a single author than Letting Go, The Breast, and The Counterlife.”
Mason calls The Ghost Writer “perfect,” an adjective he’s smart enough to know only to deploy in only the most worthy cases. Maybe it is: I gobbled down the Zuckerman novels about 10 years ago, in the Zuckerman Bound omnibus, so my memory is foggy. I read the three novels (including Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson too quickly, but the feel of Nathan’s neurosis and dark humor are hard to forget. Prompted by Mason’s essay, I dug out the old paperback and quickly sunk back in. The Anatomy Lesson is the most memorable one for me—it’s the anxious author in full flower, so oppressed by memories and failures he tries to pursue a medical career in middle age. A small bit shows Roth’s skill at inhabiting Zuckerman’s torment but finding humor in it too:
But he was not a sick man—he was fighting the idea of himself as sick. Every thought and feeling ensnared by the selfness of pain, pain endlessly circling back on itself, diminishing everything except isolation—first it’s the pain that empties the world, then it’s the effort to overcome it. He refused to endure one day more.
Other people. So busy diagnosing everybody else there’s no time to overdiagnose yourself. The unexamined life—the only one worth living.
And yet he can’t help but self-examine. Shortly after that fit of self-flagellation comes a single long paragraph, four dense pages in the paperback, that describe how the bright college boy became a serious writer. It’s a great feat—not just telling the reader how Zuckerman became who he was but, in its very telling, showing how adrift he is.