The Counterlife

by Philip Roth

Paperback, 1996




Vintage (1996), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member tangborn
I liked this Roth Novel a great deal. It is a clever twist on the autobiographical novel. The protagonist (really Roth himself) is accused of twisting the facts about the lives of his family and friends in order to write his stories. But here he shows us how he really mixes up fact and fiction to
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create entirely new characters that are really entirely new. In this novel he even kills himself off to make the point that no ones life is sacred in fiction.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
I should probably start out by saying that I think Philip Roth is a pretty terrific writer. When he's on his game, you'd be hard pressed to find a more fluid, more insightful, and more bitingly funny wordslinger anywhere in the bookstore. I'm not sure that "The Counterlife" represents his best
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work, though. Sure, a lot of what has justly made him famous is still present: the interrogation of Jewish identity, the power of narrative and reminiscence to shape personality, and beautiful, flowing sentences that seem to leap right from the author's brain to the reader's. Still, everything's got its limits, and too much of "The Counterlife" seems less like a novel than a series of lightly fictionalized personal essays. Characters seem to appear out of nowhere just to make their points, only to disappear. Various letters are transcribed in their improbably lengthy entirety. Ideas, experiences, the very stuff of life is endlessly mulled over and digested. And so on. By the time that a character offered an analysis of a book that is almost certainly "Portnoy's Complaint" at the funeral for Nathan Zuckerman, who is almost certainly Philip Roth, I just gave up. You could probably argue that novel-writing itself is a fairly self-indulgent activity, so, theoretically, a little self-analysis shouldn't ruffle my feathers. But, again, there are limits. Even if you're Philip Roth. Maybe "never include the full text of the eulogy that will be delivered at the funeral for your obviously autobiographical narrator" should be added to the master list of fiction's unbreakable rules, to be given to first-year creative writing students along with gems like "never end a short story by having your main character commit suicide." Rules to live by, people.

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.
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LibraryThing member jigarpatel
An author's anti-Jewish antics come full circle when he feels discriminated against for being Jewish. If Roth embellished on such a plot, I'd have been satisfied. But he instead dwells on a few alternative histories revolving around men suffering mid-life crises. Specifically, how brothers view
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each other when they undergo operations to recover their masculinity. There's no room for love in The Counterlife, which is jam-packed with vitriol. Against Jews or gentiles, West or East, partners or society. All expressed in eloquent and elongated monologues.

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.
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LibraryThing member fuzzy_patters
The story is covered from several points of view with alternate realities as interpreted by an author. It really gets to the heart of an artist's interpretation of the world. I found this to be a good but not great novel. It is an interesting concept for a story that gets bogged down in overly
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pedantic self-analysis. Overall, this is a good but not great book that could have been spectacular.
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LibraryThing member lriley
Roth is at least for me at his ingenious best in this one. The Counterlife starts off with Nathan Zuckerman's brother Henry (a dentist in Tampa) contemplating whether or not to have a heart operation. His medication allows him to live a symptom free existence for the forseeable future--it only has
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one drawback--it has left him completely impotent and it threatens the secret affair he is having with his dental assistant. From this starting point Roth through his narrator Nathan contemplates and develops through a handful of chapters several different alternative endings--working through in his trademark style the domestic to and fro antagonisms between love and family and sexual attraction outside of family, between nation and race, ideology and cultural and religious heritage bringing in and out of focus first one brother and then the other and interchanging their circumstances so that at first it is Henry who suffers and dies on the operating table, then becomiing an armed militant for a right wing would be Jewish ideologue in occupied territory on the West Bank ready to defend Zionism at any and all cost then only to find later on that Nathan is actually the one suffering the debility--having concocted the selfsame story up to that point using his brother as a foil for his own affairs--only to die as his brother has supposedly done in the first chapters of his manuscript on the same operating table and only to have the suspicious Henry uncover this deception afterwards as he ransacks the recently deceased Nathan's studio apartment. Roth shifts the circumstances back and forth between the brothers and their lovers--maybe not so coherently described here (poor reviewer that I am) however Roth is a fluid writer and a compelling thinker who dots his i's and crosses his t's. He knows how to make things work and work well. He has the ability to look into the minds and aspirations of his characters and make them real. He may be as good a dialogue writer as there is in the English language novel of today. One should not disregard also his very subtle sense of humor. Very highly recommended by the way.
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LibraryThing member tsutsik
A book like a play, set in five acts, each containing a different mix of the same ingredients: brotherly love/hate, heartfailure, impotency, death, love, what does it mean to be a jew. Often he punctures the thin membrane between the fictious reality of the book - actually several confliction
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versions- and the real world of the living writer. It's a trick I usually don't like, but Roth pulls it of: the stoy flows naturally between the multiple fictious worlds of the book and reality. Pivotal sentence of the book for me: 'The treacherous imagination is everybody's maker - we are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other's authors.' I was emotionally very moved by this book ,especially when Roth writes about the love and hate between the Brothers Henry and Nathan. As for other themes the book is also very concerned with religious extremism and hatred, especially the jewish variant (it contains a quite balanced description of a meir kahane lookalike).
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LibraryThing member evertonian
Probably Roth's best book. Funny, perceptive and well-written.
LibraryThing member jscape2000
This is Roth at his absolute best, blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction, while explicitly showing the reader the craft of writing and the choices the author makes. Here, the narrative doesn't follow an entirely linear format; instead it continually resets and passes certain events
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between characters. Who has the affair, who gets cancer, how might it change the family if a twist of fate turned the other way? Truly one of the best books I've ever read. It's so good that I feel like I should go back through my book ratings and drop the other 5 star books down to 4.
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