Roth's Counterlife: Destabilizing The Facts
After Philip Roth had published The Counterlife, his thirteenth novel, in 1986, the last thing his readers expected
next from him was an autobiography aspiring to tell the facts. Roth's fiction has traced a path from the relatively realistic to an extremity of self-reflexivity. He described The Counterlife as a novel which "progressively undermines its own fictional assumptions" (Milbauer and Watson 11), and it has many of the characteristic features of postmodernist fiction - fictions within a fiction, characters dying and then being resurrected by their author, characters refusing to participate in the fiction - it shows, in fact, every indication of succumbing to the metafictional disease so deplored by many American reviewers. With the appearance of The Counterlife Roth was accused by critics such as Josh Rubins of joining the disreputable ranks of John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino in an attempt to pander to the depraved tastes of academics.
Imagine the surprise of his postmodernist readers when he followed The Counterlife with The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography(1988). His aim, he declares in the opening section of the book, is to work backwards, stripping what he had already imagined "so as to restore [his] experience to the original, prefictionalized factuality" (3). If those offended with the presumed pretentiousness of The Counterlife were placated, Derrideans must have begun muttering about Roth's naive appeal to the myth of origin before they reached the second page of the book. The provocations continue. Ignoring Benveniste's assertion that the first-person singular pronoun is the only one that cannot refer to anything because it transcends the structure of oppositions on which the pronoun is based (Problems Ch. v) , Roth asserts: "the person I've intended to make myself visible to here has been myself, primarily" (4). He refers to his excursion into autobiography as a strategy by means of which he "began rendering experience untransformed" (5) Does the writer of The Counterlife seriously consider that memory is infallible? Or is this rather the exasperated outburst of a writer who has for too long been faced with the perverse "misreadings" of his reviewers who have insisted, as he put it to one interviewer, that he is "the only novelist in the history of literature who has never made anything up" (Roth, Reading Myself 135).
Roth refuses to hide behind such an excuse. His stated reason for so uncharacteristic a departure into a genre which supposedly "faithfully conforms to the facts" (7) was a breakdown that Roth suffered in the spring of 1987 caused in part by the side effects from an accidental mixture of painkilling drugs. The depression into which he fell made him distrust the transformatory powers of the imagination on which he had relied to turn his ordinary life into the dazzling pyrotechnics of his fiction. "If this manuscript conveys anything, it's my exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions, and lies" (6). The dispersion of the subject in a textual maze can apparently produce "real" mental anguish and illness. In The Facts he sets out to "demythologize" himself as a form of therapy--"demythologizing to induce depathologizing" (97), he writes, immediately reverting to that world of verbal slippage that he is simultaneously re/denouncing. This was all he could do, he claims, "so long as the capacity for self-transformation and, with it, the imagination were at the point of collapse" (7). So! This factually based book is his only defence against the imaginative and textual anarchy that threatened otherwise, he claimed, to reduce him to silence. We already know that the therapy was successful, that his imagination has returned (if it ever left him), that his addiction to self-transformation has taken the fictional form of his next novel, Deception (1989), in which "Roth" features as his own protagonist. But a closer reading of The Facts will show that this recovery takes place earlier than he thinks--in the course of writing the book, not as a consequence of having completed it.
In an interview with Katherine Weber in Publishers Weekly Roth revealed the "fact" - already a problematic term - that he began by writing three or four page fragments about his childhood purely as a form of occupational therapy with no intention of writing an autobiography. Those early sketches evolved into the first of the five sections into which the main portion of the autobiography is divided. When he was at about midpoint in the book he wrote the letter to Zuckerman, his fictional alter-ego in the trilogy, Zuckerman Bound, and in The Counterlife, with which The Facts opens. "I began writing about why I was writing the book," he explained ("Philip Roth" 68). This concern quickly supercedes his earlier concern for getting at the facts. At one point he even considered having Zuckerman comment in the margins of the manuscript. Instead he opted to bracket the autobiographical content with his letter to his fictional counterpart at the beginning and Zuckerman's reply at the end.
The supposedly factual main portion of the book, then, is framed by a fictional correspondence between the narrator of his fiction and his principal fictional protagonist for the last decade. "In some ways," he explained to Katherine Weber, "you could say this is a sequel to The Counterlife" - a sequel, that is, to an earlier work of fiction. He added, "with the Zuckerman and Maria letters, I was working my way back into writing fiction" ("Philip Roth" 68, 69). Both works, novel and autobiography, end with fictional personae asking to be let out of the verbal construct that has given them whatever form of life they enjoy--or rather don't enjoy. What has happened to the distinction all too crudely drawn in Roth's opening letter to Zuckerman between "conform[ing] to the facts" (7) and "making fictional self-legends" (8)? Clearly the author has achieved more than simply the recovery of his imaginative powers in the course of writing the book. He has also collapsed autobiography into fiction; that is, he has traced his growing recognition of the indeterminacy of all forms of textuality. Setting out to write a kind of res gestae, he has ended with the implicit recognition that, as Marc Eli Blanchard writes, "autobiography reflects only itself" ("The Critique of Autobiography").
It is significant that Roth has reordered the sequence in which he says he originally composed the material of this book - a sequence that reflected his gradual recovery from an over-active imagination. The opening sections of the autobiographical memoir may represent a therapeutic flight from the tyranny of his imagination. As Roth explained to Jonathan Brent in the New York Times Book Review, "a menaced self can't successfully entertain any more illusion than what's already hounding it into despair" ("What Facts?" 46). But the published book opens, not with these sections, but with Roth's letter to the fictional creation of his imagination asking him whether he should publish the manuscript or not. At the end of the book Zuckerman answers his question in no uncertain terms: "Don't publish--you are far better off writing about me than 'accurately' reporting your own life" (161). So not only does Roth open his autobiographical narrative by submitting it to the judgment of the imagination, but he ends by acknowledging the superiority of an imaginative over a factual form of narration. Fiction, he discovers, is more believable (and readable), though not necesarily truer, than fact.
Following the opening letter is a brief Prologue also written later than the first section that evolved out of those brief fragments. While the first of the five main chronologically ordered sections opens with Roth already halfway through his childhood, the Prologue adopts a synchronic strategy by invoking the timeless images of his already dead mother and his dying father. He superimposes the image of his father nearly dying from peritonitis when Roth was eleven with a moving picture of his father at the time he was writing The Facts facing the imminence of death. "Trying to die isn't like trying to commit suicide--it may actually be harder, because what you are trying to do is what you least want to happen; you dread it but there it is and it must be done, and by no one but you" (17). What gives this sentence its power is not the fact that his father was indeed dying (he died late in 1989; Roth published a memoir of his father, Patrimony, in 1991), but Roth's use of his imagination to see death from his elderly father's point of view - or rather from how he believes he would feel if he were in his father's shoes. Facts of this kind can only be rendered satisfactorily through the artist's imaginative prism.
Similarly in the Prologue his mother is imaginatively metamorphosed into "a sleek black sealskin coat into which I, the younger, the privileged, the pampered papoose, blissfully wormed myself whenever my father chauffered us home..." (18). By resorting to a partly poetic use of language, Roth textually transforms his younger self into a young American Indian child carried in its mother's fur coverings. The fifty five year old writer can be seen here remaking his image from that of a Jewish outsider with immigrant forebears to that of an indigenous American. The Prologue, then, has little to do with the facts, although it never flouts or questions them. It functions as a dream image or fantasy of the world as Roth fashions it, a verbal construct that answers his personal needs at the time of writing. These needs include, as he tells Zuckerman, the need to return to a moment of life when "one's own departure is unconceivable because they [his parents] are there like a blockade" (9). This rearrangement of the original order in which he composed the book shows how Roth's earlier concern with self-therapy is supplanted in the course of writing by a concern for literary form. As he pointed out to one interviewer: "Writing leads to controlled investigation. The object of analysis is uncontrolled investigation" ("Philip Roth" 69). However it is open to question to what extent literary form is controlled and to what extent it is produced by the uncontrollable unconscious to which analysis attempts to give expression.
Literary form embodies the shape of the writer's dominant obsessions. Roth has described the book as "a portrait of the artist as a young American" ("What Facts?" 3). Already one can observe Joyce's shadow and the Bildüngsroman merging intertextually to shape Roth's narrative along predetermined generic lines. In his long concluding letter Zuckerman claims to understand the plan of the book: "In somewhat autonomous essays, each about a different area in which you pushed against something, you're remembering those forces in your early life that have given your fiction its character and also reflecting on the relationship between what happens in a life and what happens when you write about it" (164). The five central sections follow Roth's life from about the age of ten to his thirty-sixth year (1969) when Portnoy's Complaint was about to be released on an unsuspecting world. By the fifth section, in which Roth diagnoses all the different elements (factual and literary) that went into the make-up of the fictional Portnoy, the relationship between fact and fiction has become extraordinarily complex if not disentanglable. This is the whole point of the book, to show how ultimately you cannot separate the facts from the imaginative transformation they undergo as soon as they become part of a textual web, whether that web passes as fiction or autobiography. The therapy takes the form of recognizing that the imagination, however tyrannical, plays an inescapable part in any textual reconstruction of the memory.
The first section is titled "Safe at Home." It concentrates on Roth's teenage years in the Jewish Weequahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey. The whole section smacks of his original intention of getting back to the facts. But how much credence do these facts have on the traditionally suspicious reader of autobiography, especially when it is written by Roth? His childhood turns out to have been unusually safe. Apparently he enjoyed a virtually untroubled relationship with both parents whom he admired and loved. Only once in passing does he let drop a hint of experiencing the usual strain that develops between parents and their children in their later teens. Among the subjects of conversation that he and his friends would talk about as they wandered the streets was that of "being misunderstood by our families..." (31). The only signs of a hostile world outside his Jewish enclave were occasional raids by gentile boys from rival schools. And these were the exception: "our lower-class neighbourhood...was as safe and peaceful a haven for me as his rural community would have been for an Indiana farm boy" (30). Once again here one catches Roth projecting his fantasies of a quintessential American boyhood onto his ethnically segregated childhood.
Overall the entire opening section is bland, anodyne, and pretty unbelievable. The whole tenor of this section may be an unconscious riposte to those readers of Roth's fiction who have insisted on reading Portnoy's lurid adolescent struggles with his parents as a thinly disguised account of his own childhood. But at the conscious level Roth was clearly aware of his reader's likely incredulity by the time he came to write the long concluding letter from Zuckerman, the spokesman for Roth the novelist. There Zuckerman alleges that "what's on the page is like a code for something missing" (162). Is this composite, Rotherman, merely focusing on Roth's reticence as a way of disarming the inevitable objections to his overly sweet account of his boyhood? Or is he simultaneously making a sophisticated comment about the complex nature of the autobiographical act that he has discovered in the course of writing about his life? Is he being defensive, or metanarrational, or both? Because it is a truism that a characteristic of the genre is that it implicitly provokes the reader into an act of hermeneutic interpretation, challenging one to penetrate the surface text, and make inferences about the autobiographical narrator/protagonist from gaps and absences in that text. Maria represents this typical reaction when, after reading the manuscript of the book, she says, "I'm interested in the things an autobiographer like him doesn't put into his autobiography" (190).
Zuckerman points out that Roth's reticence is not confined to the content. The Facts is also characterized by his "refusal to explode" (162), to indulge that carnivalesque love of obscenity and emotional excess that accounts for much of the success of Roth's fiction. Because that excess involves a use of exagerration and caricature to be found in the novels of a Dickens or a Fielding, it is normally eschewed by writers of autobiography anxious to maintain the illusion of mimetic accuracy. Through Zuckerman Roth draws his reader's attention to the way his vain attempt to stick to the facts ends up excluding vital facts (such as his need for that anger simmering just beneath the surface) that explain why he writes the kind of books he does. Yet even before Zuckerman's letter, in the fifth section he is openly talking about his discovery in his twenties of this "destructive force" (145) that erupted in "reckless narrative disclosure" (137). Clearly the autobiographical narrative has undergone a sea change in the course of its writing. The first section ends with Roth in 1982 meeting the mother of a childhood friend who exclaims nostalgically: "Phil, the feeling there was among you boys--I've never seen anything like it again.'" He adds, "I told her, altogether truthfully, that I haven't either" (34). That sugary conclusion to the section with its provocative appeal to "truth" immediately arouses the reader's suspicions about the nature of autobiographical memory. The text here and elsewhere draws attention to itself as an opaque object and away from the facts it is re-presenting as a supposedly transparent medium.
The second section, "Joe College," covers Roth's years in the early fifties at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. It is divided into accounts of his choice of a Jewish in preference to a non-denominational fraternity, his editing of an alternative literary magazine, his participation in an élite two-semester seminar, and his first affair with "Polly." Once again Zuckerman identifies the average reader's source of unease at this account of Roth's tranquillized years at university. There is a disparity between Roth's depiction of his school and student days as "an idyll, a pastoral. allowing little if no room for inner turmoil..." (169), and the personal hell on earth that follows when he becomes involved with "Josie," the woman who fakes a pregnancy in order to trick him into marriage and who after they separate faces him with the prospect of paying alimony for the rest of his life. Sections one and two offer no preparation for, or explanation of, the personal horror that he experienced in the period covered by section three, as Zuckerman is quick to demonstrate:
As you yourself point out, Josie isn't something that merely happened to you, she's something that you made happen. But if that is so, I want to know what it is that led to her from that easy, wonderful, shockless childhood that you describe, what it is that led to her from the cozily combative afternoons with Pete and Dick at Miss Martin's seminar (169).
Zuckerman's is applying a fictional criteria to find this particular aspect of the supposedly factual narrative wanting. But it is also possible that the intense unhappiness of the years with "Josie" have falsified by comparison Roth's memories of his earlier years, inducing him to see them through rose-colored spectacles. What he takes to be the facts of his early life have been powerfully bleached in the developing process in order not to render the period with "Josie" in melodramatic blacks. Emotional and aesthetic forces unite here to distort the irrecoverable facts.
Is Roth first dramatizing (in the opening two sections) and then commenting on (in the concluding letter) the way that character is a textual construct that requires the maximum licence offered by fiction to acquire substance within the textual framework? Are all protagonists of autobiography necessarily handicapped as what narratologists call "actants"? Roth has Zuckerman point out the all too obvious fact that he, Roth, is "the least completely rendered of all [his] protagonists" (162). Wittily Roth has Zuckerman argue for the superiority of his own construction as a fictional character to that of the protagonist of The Facts. "You are not an autobiographer, you're a personificator" (162). Most tellingly he suggests that Roth has become the sum of all the fictional personae that he has produced in the meantime. "By now what you are is a walking text" (162). The first two sections illustrate this poststructuralist position: behind that walking text lurks a chimera, an absence, Roth's Other.
In Roth's opening letter to Zuckerman he makes the astonishing claim that "this feels like the first thing that I have ever written unconsciously and sounds to me more like the voice of a twenty-five-year-old than that of the author of my books about you" (9). If one accepts Lacan's interpretation of Freud (as Zuckerman appears to do) it is nonsense to persuade oneself that any text reflects the unconscious, since we all create our unconscious when entering the symbolic order, an order of language among other things. Language is what forever divides us from our unconscious, whether that language is used for fictional or autobiographical purposes. It is only in the lacunae between words that the unconscious might be glimpsed endlessly deferring meaning along the signifying chain. Is Roth once again setting the reader up here? Is he trying to draw the reader's attention to the problematical nature of his claim by the use of two similes in the same sentence ("feels...like" and "sounds...like")? Zuckerman, his sophisticated alter-ego, is quick to ask, "Do you mean that The Facts is an unconscious work of fiction?" and ends, "Is all this manipulation" [including "the very pose of fact-facer"] "truly unconscious or is it pretending to be unconscious" (164)? The very presence of Zuckerman acts as the embodiment of the split subject, everything in Roth that he finds he has to repress in order to conform to the requirements of autobiographical generic conventions. Zuckerman, the personification of the licence of fiction, taunts the disadvantaged autobiographer with his inability to exclude his fictional counterpart either in spirit or in person from a narrative aspiring to be factual.
The third section introduces a new note of irony and ambivalence into the narrative. Coming midway through the book, this section allows the doubts that Zuckerman expresses so explicitly at the end to come closer to the surface. Even the title of the section is ironical - "Girl of My Dreams" - an allusion to "Josie" with her "undiscourageable imagination unashamedly concocting the most diabolical ironies" (111). Although the book becomes more interesting with the harrowing tale of Roth's sad romance with her and their sadder marriage ending in separation after three years, comparison of this account with the enraged voice of Peter Tarnopol in My Life as a Man (1974) exposes the inferiority of the autobiographical version to the earlier fictionalized rendering of the same events. What made Roth undertake this suicidal rewrite when he had admitted to an interviewer back in 1984 that the facts were virtually irretrievable by then?
It [the marriage] took place so long ago that I no longer trust my memory of it. The problem is complicated further by My Life as a Man, which diverges so dramatically in so many places from its origin in my own nasty situation that I'm hardput, some twenty-five years later, to sort out the invention of 1975 from the facts of 1959. (Roth, Reading Myself 149)
It is not simply impossible to disentangle fact from imaginative invention; it is impoverishing. As Zuckerman observes, "The truth is that the facts are much more refactory and unmanageable and inconclusive, and can actually kill the very sort of inquiry that imagination opens up" (166). The interesting question that arises from this and other interventions by Zuckerman is whether Roth treats his autobiographical sections as targets put up to be shot down by Zuckerman, or whether he wrote the sections in a genuine attempt to get back to the facts only to realize by the end that he had failed because failure is implicit in every attempted act of autobiographical retrieval of the past.
Besides, Roth appropriates "Josie" to his own autobiographical purposes in the course of the latter part of the book. To the extent that The Facts represents Roth's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Josie is made to serve as his bird woman or negative muse. Unlike her fictional counterparts in When She Was Good (1967) and My Life as a Man (1974), she is used in The Facts to represent the underside of life which Roth now claims he had to experience before he could discover the anger within him that enabled him to find his true métier as a novelist. He singles out her "bedazzling lunatic imagination" (112), her virtuosity as "a master of fabrication" (111), to account for his fascination with her: "Without doubt she was my worst enemy ever, but, alas, she was also nothing less than the greatest creative writing teacher of them all, specialist par excellence in the aesthetics of extremist fiction" (112).
Roth offers her here in the form of a paradox. Within the autobiographical text she has become a trope, a figure of language in a linguistic construct. He even refuses to call her by her true name. Zuckerman accuses Roth of relegating "Josie" "to a kind of allegorical role" by hiding her true identity (179). Roth is here discovering what De Man asserted to be the essential feature of autobiography - that like all textual systems it is made up of tropological substitutions that guarantee the impossibility of closure or totalization ("Autobiography as Defacement" 922). The real unrecoverable "Josie" has a textual stand-in and becomes a trope for negative inspiration. As Zuckerman concludes: "Her idealization is a necessity of this autobiography" (182). Zuckerman is only spelling out what Roth already realized as he was attempting to write his factual account of their relationship in section three.
The fourth section, "All in the Family," deals with charges of anti-Semitism and self-hatred that were levelled against Roth after his story, "Defender of the Faith" was published in the New Yorker in April 1959, and collected in his first book of short stories, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). As with his involvement with "Josie," one is most struck by his naivety in this episode. Anyone who has read "Defender of the Faith" cannot help but recognize the provocation that it is likely to offer orthodox Jews. That is not to argue that it is anti-Semitic. But it is inflammatory. Roth claims to have been taken completely aback at the outcry with which the Jewish press greeted it. After Goodbye, Columbus had won him two awards, he reports how he was asked to speak at Yeshiva University in New York where he was given a roasting by an enraged faculty and student body of orthodox Jews. The episode, he maintains, turned the angry young writer into one destined to be permanently embroiled in Jewish self-definition:
After an experience like mine at Yeshiva, a writer would have had to be no writer at all to go looking elsewhere for something to write about. My humiliation before the Yeshiva belligerents...was the luckiest break I could have had. I was branded (130).
To be "branded" like some helpless steer is to be consigned to what he calls a page before his "thralldom" - to be turned into an unwilling prisoner forced to defy his captors, the orthodox Jews. These tropes reflect the fifty five year old Roth's need to justify what he terms his "upping the ante in Portnoy's Complaint" and subsequent novels and confirm the fact that autobiography traditionally tells us more about the (usually aging) writer than about his earlier self. Zuckerman is quick to accuse his creator of trying to pass himself off as little more than an unwilling victim: "As though you still have no sense of how you were conspiring to make it all come about" (174). The facts are identical. But we are offered at least two mutually opposing ways in which to interpret them.
The fifth and last section, "Now Vee May Perhaps to Begin," derives its title from the last line of Portnoy's Complaint, constituting the first words to be spoken by the psychiatrist to whom the rest of the book is spoken. It is intended to suggest how his true life as a writer began with the end of his early life - the death of "Josie," the abandonment of his neo-Jamesian phase of writing in the high style, the end of his attempts to placate his Jewish compeers. So the end of his autobiographical narrative coincides with, and constitutes an account of, the beginning of his career as a scatalogical, embattled writer who announced his arrival on the literary scene with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint.
This section is far closer to the tone of Zuckerman's final letter to Roth. In part it consists of an in-depth analysis of the major ingredients that went into the make-up of Portnoy's Complaint. However Roth appears to be motivated by a desire to prove that the book had nothing to do with his own home life and parents. There were his new Jewish friends with whom he shared a taste for "recycling into boisterous comic mythology the communal values by which our irreducible Jewishnes had been shaped" (136). There was Lyndon Johnson who provoked "the fantastical style of obscene satire that began to challenge virtually every hallowed rule of social propriety in the middle and late sixties" (137). There was his seven year long psychoanaysis undertaken to counter "Josie's" demolition of his self-confidence, an analysis which "itself became a model for reckless narrative disclosure" (137). There were the attacks on him by his fellow Jews. And there was May, the new gentile woman in his life, whose tenderness highlit "the sort of tribal difference that would empower Portnoy's manic self-presentation" 137).
The sheer complexity of the personal threads out of which Roth says he wove Portnoy's Complaint gives much of this portion of the narrative an interest lacking in the simpler earlier parts. However when one remembers that Portnoy's Complaint was written in the form of a psychoanalytical monologue addressed to an analyst, and when one simultaneously reflects on the fact that Roth underwent seven years of analysis during the years covered by the central narrative, the fact that he only mentions it once in the main portion of The Facts draws attention to the highly selective nature of this record of his life. It is, as its subtitle suggests, "A Novelist's Autobiography.' It takes the form of an apology for, and explanation of, the kind of "extremist" fiction that he has produced since Portnoy's Complaint. Roth has Zuckerman light on this major omission in the autobiography, speculating whether the reason for Roth's passing over his long analysis in silence is not that "the themes [are] too embarrassing"(169). Seeing that the "reckless narrative disclosure" of his anaysis provided the fictional voice for at least one of his novels, he can hardly argue that it is not pertinent to his "Novelist's Autobiography." Once again Roth tries to have it both ways, omitting the analysis while using Zuckerman to fault him for doing so and thereby hopefully disarming the reader.
In January 1988 Roth made a brief speech when he accepted the National Book Critics Circle award for The Counterlife. In it he described the way the facts with which the novelist starts are dealt with first by the imagination and then by the mind: "This butcher, imagination, wastes no time with niceties: it clubs the fact over the head, quickly it slits its throat, and then with its bare hands, it pulls forth the guts...By the time the imagination is finished with a fact, believe me, it bears no resemblance to a fact." When the imagination turns "this dripping mass of eviscerated factuality" back to the mind, the mind promptly "sends down for fresh raw material, new facts." The two are equally ruthless. The end product is a novel. Two kinds of readers appear: "those who detest the severity of the mind and the violence of the imagination...These readers are happy only with the facts - stupid as the little facts are all by themselves - and so they strip away the imagination and the mind of the novel to get to its factual basis." "Others, however, with a secret, shameful but well-developed hunger for the brutality, cruelty and pitilessness of imagination and mind, sit back and...cannibalize the flesh of fiction" (Roth, "This Butcher, Imagination" 3).
In The Facts Roth offers the first class of readers a taste of what a book is like robbed of the ruthless operations of imagination and mind. The five central sections of the book are, as Roth tells Zuckerman at the beginning, "a distillation of the facts that leaves off with the imaginative fury" (7-8). What is left is a pale shadow of his fictional treatments of the same material. Roth appears bent on teaching his over literal-minded readers the difference between life and art, the facts and their fictional transformation. Throughout his life he has been plagued by readers who believe that his success in giving the appearance of life to what are ultimately just textual constructs is proof that his art is mimetic and that all he has done is to brilliantly reproduce the circumstances of his life in fictional disguise. Roth tells of the woman reader of Portnoy's Complaint who claimed to have known his sister when they were both at Weequahic High despite the fact that he had no sister - although Portnoy did (Roth, Reading Myself 40). Some critics of his latest novel, Deception, have still insisted on discerning Roth behind the protagonist, "Philip," and Claire Bloom behind the British female lead character. As he said to one interviewer, "To label books like mine 'autobiographical' or 'confessional' is...to slight whatever artfulness leads some readers to think that they must be autobiographical" (Roth, Reading Myself 17). One can see the main portion of The Facts as a prolonged exercise in educating this insistent kind of reader in the nature of fictional invention.
At the same time there does appear to have been a second and more personal motive for embarking on this quest for the facts, one triggered by his breakdown. It is possible that this latter motive weakened as the narrative proceeded. When the impracticality of the original project became apparent to him the didactic intention subsumed the therapeutic one. How else can one explain his continuing to write those five lack-lustre sections, even if interest does pick up somewhat towards the end? Deprived of the ruthless and outrageous operations of the imagination, the facts prove both banal and irretrievable. Maybe that is what Roth intended - a book-long demonstration of the conflicting and mutually destructive demands placed on the writer of autobiography. The autobiographer is expected to do the impossible, to be both an honest recorder of the past and a linguistic magician entertaining the reader with his imaginative insights. But the demonstration calls for too much patience from the reader. As David Denby, reviewing the book for the New Republic, concluded, it is "a negative accomplishment, like building a ship you know will sink in order to prove the weakness of the hull" ("The Gripes of Roth" 40).
Yet this ship doesn't quite sink. Because towards the latter part of the factual portion of the book the imagination begins to infiltrate the text, to bring it linguistically to life. As early as in the second section Roth shows considerable wit in the course of explaining why he chose a Jewish rather than a non-denominational fraternity at Bucknell. One small example. He asks, why the need for a specifically Jewish fraternity in the 1950s. The reason he offers is that the "Jews were together because they were profoundly different but otherwise like everyone else" (49). That enigma lies at the heart of much of his writing. It is worded so as to shock the reader into an awareness of the way Roth has chosen to use his ethnic background to investigate the experience of growing up as an American, since all Americans originate in some minority ethnic grouping or other. Considered factually Roth's use of paradox here amounts to a contradiction in terms. But life and art and language are full of such contradictions. For Roth the whole point of fiction's distortion of the facts is to "excite your verbal life" (Roth, Reading Myself 144), which is precisely what a sentence like the above achieves.
But what is it doing in an autobiography that claims to rigorously confine itself to the facts? Why does Roth end the book with Zuckerman's detailed analysis of the numerous occasions on which Roth fails to give all the facts or to tell them straight? The answer lies in the reflexivity of this book. It circles about itself. Ultimately it is about itself. It is an exercise in, and a meditation on, the nature of the autobiographical act. It shows Roth coming to terms with the fact that he is a writer who, like all writers, cannot escape from the disseminating nature of language which lures him into the labyrinth of textuality. To narrate is to select, to rearrange, to codify, to transform the original experience. "It's through dissimulation," Zuckerman tells Roth, "that you find your freedom from the falsifying requisites of 'candor'" (184). The entire book is a highly fictive artifact. It is framed by imaginary letters to and from a fictional character. At least two of its five sections start in media res as so many stories have since Homer's time and before. It is filled with references to other texts
In fact Roth makes extensive use of intertextuality both in the titles of the book and of its individual sections, in its epigraph (from The Counterlife ), and throughout the main body of the text. As Ralph Baumgarten pointed out in his review of The Facts the title of the book parodies the world of "Dragnet," Jack Webb's radio and television show, in which the detective asks a character in each episode for "the facts, ma'am, nothing but the facts." The same playful referentiality applies to the titles of the five episodes. "Safe at Home" is a baseball term, "All in the Family" the title of a popular television sitcom, "Joe College" and "Girl of My Dreams" are both narrative clichés, and "Now Vee May Perhaps to Begin" a quotation from an earlier novel of his. In each case Roth gives an ironical twist to the traditional connotations of the well known phrase. To cite one instance, "All in the Family" concerned the working class family of Archie Bunker, a tremendous racial bigot among other things. But the family to which Roth alludes in the section of that title is the world family of Jews, some of whom turn out in his account to be just as prejudiced as Archie was. In each chapter there is a similar ironic tension between the expectations set up by the conventional title and the outcome of such expectations (shared by reader and protagonist) in the body of the episode. Roth as author seems to be illustrating in this way how the text of his life can only be rendered in terms of the texts of other fictional lives.
Intertextuality also operates between different portions of the book. Zuckerman's long letter at the end deconstructs the rest of the book, recasts The Facts as meta-autobiography, forcing the reader to think back over the main portion of the book and reflect on its inadequacies as a record of the facts concerning Roth's life. The concluding letter compels the reader to acknowledge the necessity of employing fictional and fictive devices in all forms of autobiography. Zuckerman is a wholly fictional device, a persona borrowed from Roth's most recent novels to represent the carnivalesque element that has characterized all his fiction since Portnoy's Complaint. Roth begins The Facts by attempting to get back at the artist lurking behind his art. He ends by incorporating Zuckerman and Maria, personifications of his art, within The Facts. Fiction cannot be excluded from the genre of autobiography, which, because of its pretensions to greater factuality, is, as Zuckerman asserts, "probably the most manipulative of all literary forms" (172).
It has been shown how almost every objection that the reader is likely to raise against the main portion of the book is raised by Zuckerman, Roth's other voice. For it is, of course, Roth who is speaking as Zuckerman as much as in his own person. One of Roth's more brilliant strokes is to give Zuckerman an exuberance and skepticism that makes his voice the more authentic of the two. In his concluding letter Zuckerman progresses from a concrete critique of the main portion of the book to a reassertion of his fictional reality. Roth appears to be showing how this character of his invention with his newly acquired beard is as much a part of Roth's fugitive identity as is the elusive figure he tries to establish in the main portion of the book. Both are textual artefacts, verbal combinations of traits, but Zuckerman is a much more convincing verbal construct than is "Philip Roth."
Is Roth using Zuckerman to limit the reader's choice of interpretations? Does Zuckerman's alternative version of the facts exclude other possible versions? Roth anticipates this accusation by introducing Maria, Zuckerman's fictional wife, whose different reactions to reading Roth's manuscript are recounted by Zuckerman in the final portion of his letter. Maria, as we know from Roth's previous fiction, could not be more different from Zuckerman. Where he is Jewish, male and American, she is gentile, female and British. Where Zuckerman shares Roth's liking for confrontation and scandal, she is all for the quiet life. Her distrust of Zuckerman's three-month-old Jewish-looking beard is on a par with her critical reactions to The Facts: "'Uh-oh,' she said, only minutes into the book, 'still on that Jewish stuff, isn't he'" (188)? Roth employs Maria as a touchstone for instinctuality. He has her criticize him for his obsession with the Jewish experience, for his typically American identification of his fate with his freedom, of a lack of randomness in his ordering of the facts. Seen through her woman's eyes his marriage was the result of his weakness, and he betrays a typical man's distrust of all women throughout the book. Maria too is Roth's fictional creation, the spokesperson for his anima or Other. How can that persona be expressed through a narrow rendition of the facts? Roth, then, is not just the sum of "Roth" and Zuckerman. Maria offers a third perspective from which to critique the versions offered by both "Roth" and Zuckerman. The implication is that Roth could go on proliferating these perspectives indefinitely. There can be no full closure in autobiography.
But artistic closure of some kind is required. After Maria has had her say, Roth has Zuckerman play out one final confidence trick on the reader. Zuckerman concludes:
...the book is fundamentally defensive. Just as having this letter at the end is a self-defensive trick to have it both ways. I'm not even sure any longer which of us he's set up as the straw man. I thought first it was him in his letter to me--now it feels like me in my letter to him (192).
At a stroke Zuckerman undermines his reality as an authentic voice and confesses to his pseudo-existence as Roth's ventriloquist dummy. His seeming freedom to vent his criticisms of the book are exposed as the artful strategy of the author attempting to forestall his reader's every objection. Roth, the recorder of the facts, first employs a fictional persona to strip them of their factuality and then strips his fictional persona of his fictional reality. What is left? The pervading presence of a polyvocal writer who can only express his many-voiced self through the many voices of his fictional inventions - the voice of the novelist. Roth uses Zuckerman, his fictional mouthpiece, in the closing words of the book to declare in favor of the novelist who has already enmeshed the facts of this book in his fictive verbal web:
Having argued thoroughly against my extinction, in some eight thousand carefully chosen words, I seem only to have guaranteed myself a new round of real agony! But what's the alternative (195)?
Clearly not the facts.
- Baumgarten, Ralph. "The Life of Philip Roth, or, Zuckerman's Complaint." Rev. of The Facts, by Philip Roth.
Los Angeles Times Book Review 11 Sep. 1988: 1+.
- Benveniste, Émile. Problems in General Linguistics. Trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables, Florida: U of Miami P, 1971.
- Blanchard, Eli Marc. "The Critique of Autobiography." Comparative Literature 34.2 (1982): 97-115.
- Brent, Jonathan. "What Facts? A Talk With Philip Roth." New York Times Book Review 25 Sep. 1988: 3+.
- Denby, David. "The Gripes of Roth." Rev. of The Facts, by Philip Roth. New Republic 21 Nov. 1989: 37-40.
- De Man, Paul. "Autobiography as De-facement." Modern Language Notes 94.4 (1979): 919-930.
- Milbauer, Asher Z, and Watson, Donald G. Reading Philip Roth. London: Macmillan P, 1988.
- Roth, Philip. Reading Myself and Others. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985
--- . The Facts. A Novelist's Autobiography. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989
--- . "This Butcher, Imagination: Beware of Your Life When a Writer's at Work." New York Times Book Review 14 Feb. 1988: 3
- Weber, Katherine. "Philip Roth." (interview) Publishers Weekly 26 Aug. 1988: 68-69
Copyright 1993 Brian Finney