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Joel Sumner Smith

Product Manager @Gatsby focused on cloud native platform.
Analogical thinker in an analytical world.


Notes on The Solipsism of the Prophet-Novelist in Roth

Philip Roth’s pseudo-autobiographical character, Nathan Zuckerman, probably cannot teach us a great deal about life. Roth’s work, while imaginative and instructive on an aesthetic level, returns to the themes closest to his heart: Jewishness, Newark, familial rejection, and sex. The vessel of these themes is most often Zuckerman, a personal analogue that allows Roth some distance to work out, imaginatively, these seemingly personal threads.

Nathan Zuckerman might, though, act for us as a kind of model, a stand in for the contemporary novelist who is trying to see the world as it is. In Zuckerman Unbound, the text I’d like to focus on here, Zuckerman tips his hand at what he perceives the novelist vocation to be, and the rest of the novel (indeed the entire Zuckerman Bound trilogy) points at how this perspective isolates him from his family, his community, and the world.

The premise of Zuckerman Unbound is the death of Nathan Zuckerman’s father, who has been estranged to Nathan, an estrangement recounted in the earlier novel The Ghost Writer. Sitting at his father’s funeral, Nathan laments the soft pitch of the Rabbi’s eulogy but has to remind himself that such rosy portraits are the domain of discourses like eulogies even if not that of novels:

“The young Rabbi began to extol from the altar the virtues of the deceased … Strange. It was supposed to be just the opposite. But never had he contemplated his own father’s life with less sentiment. It was as though they were burying the father of some other son … All that was missing was the organ and the lepers. But why not? Who did it harm? It was a funeral, not a novel …” (Zuckerman Bound 376–7).

In contrast to this Rabbi, who paints a picture of the late, elder Mr. Zuckerman as he could have been, Zuckerman’s novelist flays the human experience for all to see. As such, the novelist acts a type of modern day prophet, bringing the harsh truths of the world to bear on the self-deluded masses. It is within this vision of the novelist, that Zuckerman’s first novel Carnovsky (a not-so-subtle mask for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint) cynically details a childhood so sexually-repressed that his own family has more or less shunned him.

What, then, is the experience of such a modern and cynical prophet? And how can that help frame our lives as humans? The answer likely lies between the foil of Zuckerman’s brother, Henry, and Nathan himself. While Nathan stands as the cynical, “truth” telling prophet, Henry stands as the willing member of the community, obedient to the traditions he has received. This contrast comes to a head as the chapter closes and the two Zuckerman brothers fly back to New York and drunkenly engage in some honest conversation.

At the outset of their flight, Zuckerman’s stream-of-consciousness provides a psychological frame of reference for the subsequent conversation:

He had never so enjoyed a takeoff in his life. He let his knees fall open and, as the place went gunning like a hot rod down the runway, felt the driving level force of the fuselage as though it were his own. And when it lifted off — like some splendid ostentatious afterthought — Zuckerman suddenly pictured Mussolini hanging by his heels. He’d never forgotten that photograph on the front page of the papers. Who could, of his generation of American youngsters? But to remember the vengeful undoing of that vile tyrant after the death of your own law-abiding, anti-Facist, non-violent father, chief air-raid warden of Keer Avenue, and lifetime champion of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League? Reminder to the outer man of the inner man he’s dealing with (ZB 378–379).

For Zuckerman, and by extension Roth, this inner man is the place of uncontrollable honesty, some kind of Freudian soup of memories and drives. As such, it acts as the power center of the modern-prophet novelist; it is his place from whence to draw that critical pose towards the world. Nathan supposes, as the Zuckerman Bound trilogy traces, that his vocational responsibility is to follow that inner man, whatever the consequences to his own life or circumstances.

Henry, on the other hand, seems to largely ignore the inner man, or so Zuckerman supposes. As the martinis grow empty, Nathan begins to poke at Henry, seeing an opportunity to liberate him, for he takes Henry’s inescapable vision of their father’s coffin as a metaphor for his own contained life. Nathan sees this kind of restriction, this kind of containment as a denial of the inner man and, therefore, a false kind of life. He urges Henry, pulling at the heartstrings of his post-adolescent attempts at drama: “You don’t have to play the person you were cast as, not if it’s what’s driving you mad” (ZB 393). Nathan, especially because he imagines that Henry is having an affair, pushes his younger brother to reconsider his entire place within society, as a father, a husband, and a Jew.

Nathan, aware of the power of his line of reasoning, especially with the effects of the alcohol, stops to justify what he is doing:

Inventing people. Benign enough when you were typing away in the quiet study, but was this his job in the unwritten world? If Henry could perform otherwise, wouldn’t he have done so long ago? You shouldn’t put such ideas in Henry’s head, especially when he’s already reeling. But reeling was when somebody could catch you right on the jaw (ZB 394).

Interestingly, Nathan sees the effect of his persuasion as a kind of psychical violence, but one that leads that to enlightenment through liberating the inner man. Throughout the flight, things are literally up-in-the-air for Henry, as he seems to entertain the possible world of the inner man which Nathan has laid out for him. Only after landing, can Henry gather his strength to perform his own kind of truth telling, which ultimately seems to rattle Nathan into following the inner-man to its logical conclusion.

At middle of the novel’s action, Nathan has joined Henry and their mother at their father’s bedside for his final moments. Nathan, being so far distanced from the family and not knowing what else to say to his stroke-stricken father, begins to tell about a documentary he had seen on the evolutionary origins of the world. At the conclusion of Nathan’s detached, impersonal narrative, his father whispers one last word before dying, but Nathan hasn’t quite heard what he said. He initially guesses “bastard” but then thinks through a series of more likely possibilities: “batter”, “brother”, “better.”

During the flight, he discusses this final word with Henry, but both laugh it off as something imperceptible. However, with the solid ground beneath his feet, Henry returns to his stance as the outer man by telling Nathan what he perceives to be the truth:

You are a bastard. A heartless conscienceless bastard. What does loyalty mean to you? What does responsibility mean to you? What does self-denial mean, restraint — anything at all? To you everything is disposable! Everything is exposable! … To you it’s all fun and games. But that isn’t the way it is for the rest of us. And the worst is how we protect you from knowing what you really are! (ZB 397).

Interestingly, Henry here reverses the metaphor that Nathan had constructed out of their father’s coffin. Instead of limitation and constraints inhibiting the “true” life of the inner man, the constraints are the norm of life. Restraint is a means of permanence for Henry, a means of grounding himself against the inevitability of life. Furthermore, Henry seems to imply that while he has not liberated his inner man, he seems to have the more truthful perspective on his own self. As he states, the family has to work at keeping Nathan from a kind of dangerous self-knowledge; the truth-telling prophet-novelist cannot face the truth about himself. After all of Nathan’s persuasion, it is Henry who has landed the punch.

Nathan, wanting to find some kind of answer to Henry’s existential challenge, hires a driver to take him to the old Zuckerman apartment in Newark, the source and setting of most of Zuckerman’s fiction. As they creep along the old streets, Nathan finds a world wholly unlike the childhood Newark of which he wrote. Instead, he finds dilapidated houses and existential doubt. The metaphor of Newark as his imagined self is brought to a close as he sees Newark, and himself, as an object that he knows little about. Staring at his old home, he is approached by the new resident:

‘Who you supposed to be?’ he said.

‘No one,’ replied Zuckerman, and that was the end of that. You are no longer any man’s son, you are no longer some good woman’s husband, you are not longer your brother’s brother, and you don’t come from anywhere anymore, either(ZB 404–405).

Nathan finds, as he ironically answers the man’s question, that the logical outcome of his inner-man, truth telling vocation is a kind of disconnected solipsism, a self-constructed world without relationships. The realization, as with Zuckerman’s critical stance in general, offers no resolution, however; and we as readers are left to stand in something less than pity for that truth-telling prophetic novelist and presumably his creator as well.

Roth, Philip. Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and an Epilogue. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985.

© 2021, Joel Sumner Smith