The Counterlife is about people enacting their dreams of renewal and escape, some of them going so far as to risk their lives to alter seemingly irreversible destinies. Wherever they may find themselves, the characters of The Counterlife are tempted unceasingly by the prospect of an alternative existence that can reverse their fate. Illuminating these lives in transition and guiding us through the book's evocative landscapes, familiar and foreign, is the miind of the novelist Nathan Zuckerman. His is the skeptical, enveloping intelligence that calculates the price that's paid in the struggle to change personal fortune and reshape history, whether in a dentist's office in suburban New Jersey, or in a tradition-bound English Village in Gloucestershire, or in a church in London's West End, or in a tiny desert settlement in Israel's occupied West Bank.
Still, Roth's a writer of such talent that he can be interesting even when he's unsuccessful. The second section of "The Counterlife," in which the unassuming dentist brother of authorial stand-in Nathan Zuckerman survives a major heart operation, becomes depressed, and decamps to Israel to join a far-right settler movement, is worth the reader's time. In this iteration of the story, Roth's Jewish characters seem like the polar opposites of the inward, sensitive, contemplative, self-effacing characters one so often encounters in the author's fiction. These characters' Jewish identity is, as per Jung, wholly externalized as a fierce, intractable territoriality and their personal insecurities thrown out in the world as anger and violence. In a sense, it's an interesting companion piece to "The Plot Against America," a sort of mirror image of Roth's fiction in which the Jewish cultural assimilation that has informed so much of Roth's fiction never took place. It's not pretty, but it might be called another important facet of Roth's ever-evolving conception of the Jewish personality. As for the rest of "The Counterlife," well, I just didn't have the patience.
I was looking for something more like other Roth's more sensitive works which I thoroughly enjoyed, such as Indignation, Human Stain and Goodbye, Columbus. I marched on hoping for a denouement which strikes a chord. It never came.