THE COUNTERLIFE begins with a short chapter entitled "Basel". In this, the novelist Nathan Zuckerman imagines the adulterous mindset and experiences of his brother Henry, a successful dentist and father of three, who chooses to undergo risky heart bypass surgery rather than take medication that leaves him impotent. The surgery kills Henry and his wife, who knows of his infidelities, falsely eulogizes her dead husband at his funeral, claiming that Henry underwent surgery to restore their precious physical relationship. In this fine novel, this is the first apparent counterlife that Roth concocts, which he defines, in reference to Israel, as constructing "one's own anti-myth..."
This narrative strategy--develop an alternative story from the apparent facts--produces some fascinating and deep thinking from Roth in THE COUNTERLIFE. For example in "Judea", this novel's second chapter, Henry undergoes the same heart surgery, lives, and then experiences severe depression, which he manages through aliyah to Israel. There Henry, an assimilated American Jew before his surgery, lives in a settlement in the territories, where he becomes a follower of a charismatic and apocalyptic settler, who another character calls a "psychopath alienated profoundly from the country's common sense." In "Judea", Nathan, also an assimilated Jew, travels to Israel to discuss the wisdom of aliyah with his brother. Roth manages the subsequent clash of viewpoints with great subtlety and eloquence, with a diverse selection of Jews contributing depth or background to their discussion. "Judea", in other words, presents the counterlife to "Basel", where horny and unfaithful Henry basically loses his life for oral sex.
Another illustration: In chapter four, "Gloucestershire", it is Nathan who has heart disease, uses Beta-blockers, and is impotent. Nonetheless, he is determined to father a child with Maria, a brilliant and much younger upper-crust Brit. As a result, this Nathan decides to have risky heart surgery, which kills him. Then Henry, a dentist and professional's professional, illicitly enters his deceased brother's apartment, where he is determined to extirpate from his Nathan's notes all references to his single marital indiscretion. This Henry shares some qualities with the Henry in "Basel"--namely, an adulterous past. And he shares qualities with the Henry in "Judea", who is resentful of his renowned brother. But in "Gloucestershire", Henry is positioned to express the fullness of his remorse and his anger. And he offers yet another counterlife, where Roth examines how the novelist's need to enrich life in narrative can engender misunderstanding and rage in others.
In THE COUNTERLIFE, Roth is an author of disputation. Instead of managing the content of his narrative to a few profound truths, he allows each of his characters to make an eloquent and irrefutable argument. This produces a book with both great richness and intense and unresolved disagreement. In the final chapter, "Christendom", this creates problems for Maria and Nathan, who in a counterlife, marry. But this also allows Maria to make comments on Nathan's character that certainly apply to the author Philip Roth. These include:
o "You and I argue, and the twentieth-century history comes looming up, and at its most infernal. I feel pressed on every side, and it takes the stuffing out of me--but for you, it's your métier, really.
o "You actually like to take things hard. You can't weave your stories otherwise."
Of course, I don't mean to convey that THE COUNTERLIFE is only debate and friction. In addition, there is some truly great descriptive writing, which shows Roth can capture the appearance of a character or the feel of a place whenever he wants. Here's Roth describing Lippman, a settler and fanatic: "Because of his injury, Lippman walked as though intending with each step to take wing and fly at your head--then the torso slowly sank into the imperfect leg and he looked like a man who was melting. I thought of a circus tent about to cave in after the center pole was withdrawn. I waited for the thud, but there he was advancing... his face had the sardonic mobility that comes of peering nobly down upon self-deceiving mankind from the high elevation of Hard Truth." His description of the house in Chiswick is also wonderful.
I'm no expert. But near the start of "Christendom", isn't the sly Roth using this talent to channel Jane Austen?