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Zuckerman in pain--physical pain, psychic pain, existential pain--as Roth continues to follow his nakedly, overbearingly autobiographical alter-ego: what was high art in The Ghost Writer became a glossy, so-so hybrid in Zuckerman Unbound. . . and has now become something intermittently powerful or funny, strangely fascinating, yet grimly embarrassing, It's 1973. Zuckerman, 40, author of the notorious Carnovsky (read Portnoy's Complaint), is still haunted by his father's death-bed curse, his brother's hatred, and now his mother's death. He hasn't been able to write a decent page in months and months. He has "lost his subject." He's losing his hair. Above all, Zuckerman has lost his health, having become half-immobilized by chronic neck and back pain: he has tried a grisly litany of doctors, including an analyst; he spends much of the day on his back on a "playmat," numbed with vodka and Percodan, ministered to (sexually and otherwise) by a quartet of girlfriends. And his only zest comes in brooding furiously over an attack on him by one Milton Appel (clearly modeled on Irving Howe)--recalling Appel's favorable review of Zuckerman's first fiction (near-exact paraphrase of Howe's actual words about Goodbye, Columbus), stewing over this recent abuse, arguing with it, indulging in unspoken tirades of retaliatory invective. How, then, can Zuckerman escape the "selfness of pain," the selfness of his writing, all this dead-end writhing, this entrapment in the past? By becoming a doctor, he thinks. So eventually he takes off to visit an old doctor-chum in Chicago, looking for reed-school-admission help. But by now he is flying from his drug/booze saturation: he hires a limo, using the name Milton Appel, "kike-pornographer," supposed editor of Lickety Split; in this role, he subjects the woman chauffeur to ugly tour-de-force fantasy-arias about porn, Hugh Hefner, Jewishness, "Appel's" life; and he winds up running amok in a Jewish cemetery--nearly throttling a grieving old man ("the last of the fathers demanding to be pleased"), fracturing his own head on a footstone, landing in the hospital. . . yet still determined to be an M.D., to "unchain himself from a future as a man apart and escape the corpus that was his." Roth's talent for half-comic ghastliness flickers vigorously throughout this nightmare-novel; his bravura wordsmanship--fine-tuned, orchestrated colloquiallism--gets ample (if contrived) exposure. But, in terms of craft, this may be Roth's weakest fiction: repetitious, unshapely, registering as a belabored short story--with a more-of-the-same ending that doesn't seem like the close of a novel, let alone the close of a trilogy. And, more important, the autobiographical premise breaks down badly here--as Roth shifts constantly, uncomfortably, between self-pity and self-deprecation, repentance and defiance, occasionally lifting the proceedings onto a more resonant level (through an almost Kafkaesque treatment of pain-as-metaphor). . . but more often sinking down into the petulance, pettiness, and sentimentality of one writer's woes and feuds. Still, if some readers will be lured (or put off) by Roth's roman clef specifics, others will be drawn to the Chinese-box ironies (Zuckerman yearning to escape "self" in '73, Roth at the summit of "self" in '83)--and to the squirming spectacle of a writer trying to find a bearable approach for fictional self-examination, trying to defend himself and crucify himself at the same time.
Pub Date: Nov. 28th, 1983
ISBN: 0679749020
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1983


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