December 19, 2007
Philip Roth: The Anatomy Lesson
There’s a common view that for a writer to write about writing is a mark of failure, or at least boring. Who wants to read that stuff? Well, I do. My take is that if I get pleasure out of great writing, then writing about writing must double the delight; or square it. Others, I know, feel the sum is actually a subtraction, and that they cancel one another out. Where my heart swells, theirs sinks. All this is by way of prelude to The Anatomy Lesson (1983), a book about writing and its effect on the writer even more intense than the earlier volumes, The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound. And it’s a blast and a breeze.
It is 1973 and Nathan Zuckerman is in pain. Not existential or metaphysical pain – though, that too – but the real thing, riddled with “a hot line of pain that ran forward behind his right ear into his neck, then branched downward beneath the scapula like a menorah held bottom side up.” He is “jangling with pain each time [a] cab took a pothole.” He’s a prisoner of it, unable to write, unable to get up, unable to do anything but lay down on his ‘playmat’ and watch the trials of Richard Nixon sideways.
Through his prism glasses he followed our President’s chicanery – the dummy gestures, the satanic sweating, the screwy dazzling lies. He almost felt for him, the only other American he saw daily who seemed to be in as much trouble as he was.
He also distracts himself from the pain by engaging with one of his four women in an activity suited to such a cunning linguist, back down there on the playmat (“step right up, sit right down”). It is perhaps this, or something related to it, which has brought him here: Zuckerman feels the pain is a symptom or rebound of his writing against him, particularly the lewd novel Carnovsky which so incensed his family. “Saddled with fifteen pounds of head”, its weight presses down on him: his head, having brought him to success, is now bringing him down. He tries therapy, medication, special pillows and electric shocks:
Six times a day he gave himself a low voltage shock for five minutes. And six times a day he waited for the pain to go away – actually he waited for it to go away a hundred times a day. Having waited long enough, he then took Valium or aspirin or Butazolidin or Percodan or Robaxin; at five in the evening he said the hell with it and began taking the vodka. And as tens of millions of Russians have known for hundreds of years, that is the best pain suppressor of all.
Then again, pain is just pain, and if Zuckerman can’t blame it on his writing, he can’t reverse that and rely on it to provide him with subject matter either: he “understood just how little one can depend upon human suffering to produce ennobling effects.” And Zuckerman is just Zuckerman: still he is amazed at how people – from family to literary professors – can confuse him with his character Carnovsky in his most famous book (an analogue for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint).
From what he’d read of the reviews in the feminist press, he could expect a picture of himself up in the post office, alongside the mugshot of a Marquis de Sade, once the militants took Washington and began guillotining the top thousand misogynists in the arts.
This of course is doubly clever because Roth has been saddled for most of his career with comparisons to his narrators and characters (“There’s nothing more wearing than having to go around pretending to be the author of one’s own books – except pretending not to be”). Here, as with the other Zuckermans, he simultaneously invites the comparison and repels it, throwing the reader into a complex system of mirrors where Roth is and isn’t Zuckerman, who is and isn’t Carnovsky. Roth is the only writer I know who can pull off such postmodern games without indulging in textual trickery too: the book looks like a solid story but it is riddled with trapdoors.
On top of this, Zuckerman adopts a persona within the story. Incensed by accusations of anti-semitism from critic Milton Appel, who had “unleashed an attack upon Zuckerman’s career that made Macduff’s assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical,” Zuckerman delights in calling himself Milton Appel when conversing with strangers, creating a new character for the critic as a pornographer. No-one can sustain a rant like Roth, and Zuckerman’s monologues as ‘Appel’ the porn baron are among the comic highlights of the book, poking fun at, among other things, Roth’s own supposed misogyny as a writer, and going further than most would dare in the process.
Exploited? If anyone’s exploited it’s the God damn men. Most of these girls are on a total ego trip in front of the camera. Sure I had animals in my last film, but nobody there forced anybody to fuck them. Chuck Raw, my star, walked off the picture because of the dog. He says, ‘I love dogs and I won’t be a party to this, Milton. Banging women fucks up their minds – they can’t handle it. Any dog who fucks a woman is finished as an animal.’ I respected Chuck for that. I have the courage of my convictions, he has the courage of his. Don’t you get the idea yet? Nobody is putting these people in chains! I am taking them out of their chains! I am a monster with something to offer! I am changing American fucking forever! I am setting this country free!
Yet what makes The Anatomy Lesson so extraordinary – and easily my favourite of the half dozen Roths I’ve read – is that in the middle of all this high octane prose, which turns the pages itself even when the story is idling, there is a controlled and tender portrayal of grief as Zuckerman recalls his mother’s death.
The mother who’d been so enormous to him for the first ten years of his life was as diaphanous in recollection as [a] chiffon hood. A breast, then a lap, then a fading voice calling after him, “Be careful.” Then a long gap when there is nothing of her to remember, just the inevitable somebody, anxious to please, reporting to him on the phone the weather in New Jersey.
Which leads to intimations of mortality, something that we haven’t seen the last of in Roth:
In the car to the cemetery, what is there to think? On the road to the cemetery, stupefied or wide awake, it’s simple: what is coming. No, it stays unseen, out of sight, and you come to it. Illness is a message from the grave. Greetings: You and your body are one – it goes, you follow. His parents were gone and he was next. Out to the cemetery in a long black car.
So where Zuckerman hoped for “an end to the search for the release from self,” he finds instead that the pain, like his writing, brings him further into himself than ever. The awareness spreads through him, through the story like, well, like a menorah held bottom side up.
This self-reflection on the decline of the body brings with it a certain amount of self-loathing, and a reprise of rage, as Zuckerman tries to decide which is easier to bear: the memory of grief, or the presence of pain, when he discovers an obscene and hate-filled note on a green index card to his mother from someone who hated Zuckerman’s books, and took it out on her.
He’d walk over to Meyer Lansky’s hotel to find out from the bell captain who could be hired to do a little job. Why not that for a change, instead of flying back to New York to file the green index card under “Mother’s Death”? You could not be a nothing writer fellow forever, doing nothing with the strongest feelings but turning them over for characters to deal with in books.
Books like this one. And how fortunate we are that Zuckerman – I mean Roth – I mean Zuckerman – has turned them over to us, and keeps on doing so. The pain is his, the pleasure all ours.