Philip Roth-Countertexts, Counterlives

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Philip Roth-Countertexts, Counterlives, by Debra Shostak. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. 332 pp. $39.95.

As it becomes more unarguable that Philip Roth is a great writer, not merely a great Jewish American writer, more and more sophisticated critical appraisals of his work appear. Taking her cue from Roth's novel The Counterlife, Debra Shostak has organized her lively and compelling study of Roth's large body of work through the exploration of oppositions. Early in his career in Reading Myself and Others, Roth himself noted "the self-conscious and deliberate zigzag that my own career has taken, each book veering sharply away from the one before." And since that comment was made in an interview Roth conducted with himself, it is certainly fitting to look at his work as a decades-long conversation among many voices in his head. Within each novel characters counter each other, voice opposing positions, verbally duel. Who can forget the furious antagonism and bracing attack and counterattack about Judaism and Israel between the humane dove Shuki and embattled hawk Mordecai Lippman in The Counterlife? The oppositions exist on all levels in Roth's work, including within one character, particularly Nathan Zuckerman.

Shrewdly calling Roth's work "dialogical," Shostak explores Roth's entire oeuvre except The Plot Against America, which appeared too recently. But since Shostak considers Roth's work as a series of "what if" questions, the recent novel fits her analysis perfectly since it is a new kind of what if: what if in 1940 the antisemitic Charles Lindbergh had been elected president, not FDR? Which is to say, the new novel poses a counterhistorical what if, a new Rothian what if-but another what if. Shostak argues that the protagonist in one novel is often the opposite of the protagonist in Roth's previous novel. For example, the wildly transgressive, raging Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath's Theater (1995) is followed by the accommodating, moral, America-loving Swede Levov in American Pastoral (1997) who in turn is countered by the political radical Ira Ringold who sees only America's injustices and failure to live up to its ideals in I Married a Communist the very next year. …