Philip Roth's Zuckerman Bound binds together The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, adding to them as epilogue a wild short novel, The Prague Orgy, which is at once the bleakest and the funniest writing Roth has done. The totality is certainly the novelist's finest achievement to date, eclipsing even his best single fictions, the exuberantly notorious Portnoy's Complaint and the undervalued and ferocious My Life as a Man. Zuckerman Bound is a classic apologia, an aggressive defense of Roth's moral stance as an author. Its cosmos derives candidly from the Freudian interpretation of ambivalence as being primal, and the Kafkan evasion of interpretation as being unbearable. Roth knows that Freud and Kafka mark the origins and limits of a still-emerging literary culture, American and Jewish, which has an uneasy relationship to normative Judaism and its waning culture. I suspect that Roth knows and accepts also what his surrogate, Zuckerman, is sometimes too outraged to recognize : breaking a new road both causes outrage in others, and demands payment in which the outrageous provoker punishes himself. Perhaps that is the Jewish version of Emerson's American Law of Compensation: nothing is got for nothing.
Zuckerman Bound merits something reasonably close to the highest level of aesthetic praise for tragicomedy, partly because as a formal totality it becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Those parts are surprisingly diverse: The Ghost Writer is a Jamesian parable of fictional influence, economical and shapely, beautifully modulated, while Zuckerman Unbound is more characteristically Rothian, being freer in form and more joyously expressionistic in its diction. The Anatomy Lesson is farce bordering on fantasy, closer in mode and spirit to Nathanael West than is anything else by Roth. With The Prague Orgy, Roth has transcended himself, or perhaps shown himself and others that, being just past fifty, he has scarcely begun to display his powers. I have read nothing else in recent American fiction that rivals Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and episodes like the story of Byron the light bulb in the same author's Gravity's Rainbow. The Prague Orgy is of that disturbing eminence: obscenely outrageous and yet brilliantly reflective of a paranoid reality that has become universal. But the Rothian difference from Nathanael West and Pynchon should also be . . .