Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Imagine That!" Philip Roth's Threshold Scenes: The Case of "Femme Fatale"

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Imagine That!" Philip Roth's Threshold Scenes: The Case of "Femme Fatale"

Article excerpt

"The whole point about your fiction [...] is that the imagination is always in transit between the good boy and the bad boy-that's the tension that leads to revelation."

-Philip Roth, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988)

Highly attentive readers of the 1995 Vintage International edition of Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer will be struck by an apparent typographical omission on its one-hundred-and-twenty-second page: the number "3" that should signal the start of the third chapter, entitled "Femme Fatale," has vanished.1

More precisely, the "3" seems to have wandered off for a dozen years or so.

It was present in the original Farrar, Straus and Giroux publication of 1979 (122). It quietly returned to its rightful position atop the first page of the third chapter in the 2007 Library of America compilation of the Zuckerman Bound novels (79). But in the 1995 Vintage release the "3" disappears like a phantom. In that text Arabic numeral "1" signals the start of a chapter called "Maestro" (3); Arabic numeral "2" marks a chapter named "Nathan Dedalus" (75); Arabic numeral "4" kicks off "Married to Tolstoy" (156).2 But on page 122 no numeral alerts us to the beginning of this third chapter (?) or thirty-three page section, or thing that goes by the title of "Femme Fatale."3

Ordinarily, a critic would view this omission as an oversight of nugatory literary significance-the result of a line editor being distracted by whatever it was that distracted line editors in 1995. Then again, this is Philip Roth we are talking about-a writer whose magic bag of metafictional, self-referential, postmodern, and autofictional tricks is hollowed at the seams.4 And then again, again, this is "Femme Fatale" we are talking about-a mise en abîme that stands as one of Roth's most swashbuckling acts of provocation and fabulation.5 This "work-of-art-within-the-work-of-art" imagines that Holocaust martyr Anne Frank was alive and well (physically, at least) and lovestruck and living in the Berkshires.6

There is, in fact, some precedent for the surmise that the "3" was removed on purpose. Roth has sometimes revised the external and internal contents of his later editions. Scholars such as Debra Shostak have called attention to a reorganization of the "Books by Philip Roth" list in the paratext of 2000's The Human Stain (Philip Roth-Countertexts, Counterlives 10).7 Judith Yaross Lee, in her study of The Breast, noted that the author had tinkered with the 1972 manuscript in a 1980 re-issue. "The revisions," she concluded, "subtly rearrange phrases for tone and emphasis" and continue "to the book's final paragraph" ("Affairs of the Breast" 76). All of this lends credence to the surmise that the nimble redacting glove of Roth lurked in the shadows of the 1995 edition of The Ghost Writer.

It is not, however, my intention to dwell upon, or solve, The Case Of The Missing "3." A solution-and a whimsical one at that-will be suggested in my conclusion. But as with so many riddles in the Rothian funhouse, this one grinningly scoffs at logical closure. Rather, the recognition of the mystery's existence stimulates us to redouble our attention to what immediately precedes "Femme Fatale" and what follows therein.

What immediately precedes the "3" (in all editions) is an episode that recurs sporadically throughout Roth's fiction. I refer to these as "threshold scenes," of which there are two types. Of interest to us are "literary threshold scenes." These depict a stumped writer who must surmount considerable obstacles in order to create fiction. Once the threshold is crossed what ensues is best described as "the madness of Rothian art."8 A study of the mechanics of threshold scenes will reveal that they function like triggers. They spark an act of transgression or imagination or the narrator's disappearance (or all of the above).

Our delinquent "3," then, draws our scrutiny not only to a set of largely unrecognized narrative patterns in Roth's oeuvre, but to one of his enduring obsessions. …

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