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In The Ghost Writer (1979), Roth explored the tensions between being-an-artist and being-a-human-being; he used the nakedly autobiographical figure of young (in the mid-1950s) writer Nathan Zuckerman; he compressed all the action into a few days; he wove his theme through sequences ranging from fantasy and farce to Chekhovian realism; and he came up with a magical novel, perhaps the best book of his career. But here, though Roth tries to re-gather all these same elements for a repeat performance, the pieces (some funny, some affecting, some limp) simply don't come together. It's 1969 now, and Zuckerman is a celebrity--thanks to Carnovsky (read Portnoy), his scandalous novel about Jewish motherhood and masturbation. But he's made "a fiasco of fame and fortune": unhappy, badly dressed, recently divorced, still taking buses(i). His magisterial agent says: "What are you up to, anyway? . . . Are you trying to show them up in heaven and over at Commentary that you are only a humble, self-effacing yeshiva bucher and not the obstreperous author of such an indecent book?" Worse yet, people stop him in the street--people like Alvin Pepler, a nutcase who clings to his one brush with fame (as a 1950s quiz-show winner), who follows Zuckennan around, who wants advice on his own writing, and who later makes phone-threats about kidnapping Zuckerman's mother (with a final explosion of envious rage). This black comedy, however--with its variations on the theme of celebrity--is less important than (and only tenuously linked to) the novel's real center: again, as in The Ghost Writer, the human costs of being an artist. Zuckerman's mother, who is not a Mrs. Portnoy, doesn't know what to do when "People say to me--and right out, without a second thought--'I didn't know you were crazy like that, Selma.'" And Zuckerman's father, on his deathbed, delivers (with a follow-up from Zuckerman's brother) a totally devastating retort to "artistic license" and "writer's freedom." True, these moments are powerful. But, unlike the very similar bus-stop scene in The Ghost Writer, these new family scenes derive so much of their power from specific, well-known autobiographical reference points that the novel is thrown off balance: the fact/fiction seams show, the farce/ tragedy gear-shifts grind. Moreover, Roth's page-by-page craft wobbles a bit: a romantic sequence with an actress is pallid; the themes are spelled out too often, too heavy-handedly; and there are even patches of banal, sentimental, highly un-Roth-like prose. So, though there's much that's engaging here--the superb dialogue, the deft comedy, the mostly seductive narration, the titillating recognition-factors for Portnoy's Complaint readers--those who responded to the subtler, fable-like connections of The Ghost Writer will be sorely disappointed by this much cruder, less daring, and largely redundant sequel.
Pub Date: June 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0679748997
Page count: 225pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1981


FictionNEMESIS by Philip Roth
by Philip Roth
FictionTHE HUMBLING by Philip Roth
by Philip Roth
FictionINDIGNATION by Philip Roth
by Philip Roth