Goodbye America: For the Past 30 Years, Philip Roth's Brilliant Alter Ego Nathan Zuckerman Has Chronicled the Decline and Fall of the American Dream. Finally, Words Are Failing Him

Article excerpt

Tony Soprano: "It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I
came too late for that, I know. But lately I'm getting the feeling that
I came in at the end. The best is over."
Dr Jennifer Melfi: "Many Americans, I think, feel that way."
From the pilot episode of the Sopranos

"Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the
end of the literary era--take this down."
E I Lonoff, deceased, dictating a letter to Amy Bellette in Philip
Roth's new novel, Exit Ghost

It has not been a good year for New Jersey. First, the saga of the Garden State's favourite television sociopaths, the Sopranos, came to its magnificent conclusion after ten years of putting most working novelists, American or otherwise, to shame. Now Newark's own Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's fictional alter ego and the greatest portrayal of a novelist in literary history, is taking his final bow in Roth's tottering, if occasionally brilliant new novel, Exit Ghost.

Whether the final Zuckerman novel will elicit the same frenzied speculation as the finale of The Sopranos, or have Harry Potter-esque droves of people queuing outside Waterstone's at midnight, sporting Zuckerman costumes of adult diapers and vintage Olivetti typewriters, is another thing. Readers of great literature can't always be counted on to make public spectacles of themselves. But maybe they should. Because after almost three decades and nine books, it's time to say goodbye to Nathan Zuckerman.

Like his creator, Zuckerman was born in 1933 in the Jewish quarter of Newark, New Jersey--in a city that, to hear him tell it, no longer exists, in a country whose changes Roth's Zuckerman novels document in excruciating, often wrathful detail. Nathan Zuckerman was there--from the "triumph of gossip" and "personal betrayal" of the 1950s ("McCarthyism as the first postwar flowering of the American unthinking that is now everywhere"), to the "American berserk" of the 1960s, "when Oswald shot Kennedy and the straitlaced bulwark gave way to the Gargantuan banana republic" and all that followed: Vietnam, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and an America where "blowing people apart replaced the roundhouse punch in the daydreams of the aggrieved", where "only annihilation gave satisfaction that lasted", to the "enormous piety binge" of Bill Clinton's blow-job fiasco and, finally, to the proof that not only did we learn nothing, but we learned nothing with incredible vigour and resolve: the post-9/11 Bush years. Through all of this, Roth's Zuckerman has been keeping tabs, ostensibly writing about himself and, of course, writing about writing, but also chronicling the decline and fall of the American dream as his father knew it. The hope-addled European immigrant's dream of the first half of the 20th century has been undermined by "the real American crazy shit. America amok! America amuck!"

Roth conflates the personal and the political to show how we got from there to here, and right in the middle is Nathan Zuckerman, the man whose life is literature and vice-versa--to the detriment of all else. Who better to guide us through the last half of the American century than a novelist like Zuckerman: a self-absorbed, celebrated, morally compromised and intellectually potent fabulist? Who else could make better sense of a big country whose watchword has always been self-creation?

Roth's most famous alter ego began his life as the alter ego of another of Roth's alter egos, the writer Peter Tarnopol, in the harrowing My Life as a Man (1974). In his autobiography, The Facts, Roth describes Zuckerman as someone "whose existence was comparable to my own and yet registered a more powerful valence, a life more highly charged and entertaining than my own". Which is a way of saying that there are similarities between Roth and Zuckerman, sure, but Zuckerman is way crazier. Where an anarchist might profess that the destructive impulse is also a creative one, Zuckerman's history in his first "trilogy and an epilogue"--The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983) and The Prague Orgy (1985)--proves the creative impulse, when properly pursued, can be as beneficial to your life as a bomb. …