Philip Roth: Zuckerman Unbound

(This is the second book in the Zuckerman series. See also The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy and Exit Ghost.)

Warm on the heels of The Ghost Writer, I’ve bolted down the second of in Roth’s Zuckerman Bound trilogy, confusingly titled Zuckerman Unbound (1981, two years after The Ghost Writer).

Now Nathan Zuckerman is a successful novelist, his novel Carnovsky acting as an analogue (I presume) for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint, a similarly sexual comedy which made him as much of a household name as real writers ever get to be these days. “Gone were the days when Zuckerman had only to worry about Zuckerman making money: henceforth he would have to worry about his money making money.” But is he happy?

All this, this luck – what did it mean? Coming so suddenly, and on such a scale, it was as baffling as a misfortune.

So Roth gives us the downsides of success with both barrels: but, to sweeten the pill, still makes it (mostly) a comedy. As he goes about his business, Zuckerman faces the leeches and walking wounded which any famous figure attracts, including Alvin Pepler, a former game show contestant who now wants Zuckerman to help him publish an expose of the corrupt world of the US gameshow (or as he puts it, “the decline of every decent American thing into liars and lies”). He faces reams of correspondence from those who probably shouldn’t be allowed anything sharp:

The only letters at all tempting were those marked “Photo Do Not Bend,” and there was none in this batch. He had received five so far, the most intriguing still the first, from a young New Jersey secretary who had enclosed a colour snapshot of herself, reclining in black underwear on her back lawn in Livingston, reading a novel by John Updike. An overturned tricycle in the corner of the picture seemed to belie the single status she claimed for herself in the attached curriculum vitae. However, investigation with his Compact Oxford English Dictionary magnifying glass revealed no sign on the body that it had borne a child, or the least little care in the world. Could it be that the owner of the tricycle had just happened to be pedaling by and dismounted in haste when summoned to snap the picture? Zuckerman studied the photo on and off for the better part of a morning, before forwarding it to Massachusetts, along with a note asking if Updike would be good enough to reroute photographs of Zuckerman readers sent mistakenly to him.

There is more fun to be had, when Zuckerman briefly dates a starlet, and the light tone remains even when his unsolicited phone calls turn threatening. It’s surprising then that the book should take a different turn in the final section, dealing with mortality, and returning to the family crosstalk so richly mined in The Ghost Writer. Mainly because of my mood, I really could have done with continued laughs, but I shall look forward with enthusiasm still to part three of the trilogy, The Anatomy Lesson (and with appropriate apprehension to the new Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost, which like all Roth these days seems to be about death).


  1. Alvin Pepler, har, har, har. Glad you enjoyed this one. Christopher Hitchens rips Exit Ghost in the new Atlantic. I couldn’t bear to read past the first paragraph of rant against Roth before reading the novel.

  2. I loved “Portnoy’s Complaint” and I feel a deep sense of shame that I haven’t any more Roth (just as I loved “Midnight’s Children” and haven’t read any more Rushdie), especially given his status as the Greatest Living American Novelist (and therefore the Greatest Living Novelist in the English Language). On the sterength of that passage, I shall be seeking out the Zuckerman quartet as soon as my Autumn of Short Stories has finished.

  3. I went on a huge Roth binge about five years ago, and now I find I can’t remember a thing about any of them. Then last year I tried to reread The Human Stain and couldn’t really connect with it. Maybe I should try to find a cheap paperback of the Zuckerman Bound trilogy … I’m curious to see whether it’s my reading habits or my memory that’s changed.

  4. Thanks for the comments, guys. (Beth, rejoice, you’re an honorary guy now!) I definitely didn’t get on as well with Roth ten years ago as I do now. Though there is also the possibility that I chose all the wrong books back then…

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