Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Narrative Ramblings—Philip Roth, Lisa Halliday, and the Invention of Identity

Philip Roth was, I believe, the greatest living American writer of my lifetime. (“Was” because he is no longer living, but I do not believe anyone will take his place in the years I have left to read.). For me, Roth was great because of the corpus of his career—his sustained exploration of American identities and the myriad ways in which he reinvented himself as a writer—as well as extraordinary power of particular books. (In a career that long and varied some are naturally better than others—though all are good.) I read all his books, from Goodbye Columbus to Nemesis, as they came out.  By 1985, Roth had published 10 books, most notably the infamous (and hilarious) Portnoy’s Complaint and a trilogy of books narrated by the character Nathan Zuckerman, who bore certain resemblances to Roth himself. In 1986, The Counterlife appeared--also narrated by Nathan Zuckerman but categorically different from anything had Roth had published before.

The early novels appeared in many ways to be autobiographical. A good number were set in New Jersey, where Roth and his brother grew up, and revolved around a lower middle-class Jewish family with two sons. However, Roth--in many ways and on many occasions--denied that they were autobiographical. Based surely on his life experiences, they were nevertheless novels. His characters, that is, were his creations--not records of real people. Nevertheless, the notion of autobiography vs fiction is complicated in many of Roth's novels because the analogues seem so obvious.  Roth tackled this question in The Counterlife, first published in 1986. In this novel, Roth makes a huge turn: it is the beginning of a set of novels that self-consciously play with questions of identity and fiction, self and narrative.

The Counterlife is primarily about three characters: Nathan Zuckerman, his brother Henry, and his lover/wife Maria. In various parts of the novel, the characters re-enact parts of the plot, with each re-telling leading to a different set of circumstances and a different story. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Nathan tells the story of his brother Henry who had a heart condition. The medicine he was prescribed left him impotent, and because he was engaged in a passionate affair, he decided on risky surgery that, though potentially dangerous, might cure the condition and let him abandon the medicine. The surgery, however, is not a success, and Henry dies. In the next section of the novel, Henry has survived the surgery but has abandoned his family to emigrate to Israel. The story eventually shifts to Nathan who is in love with a woman, Maria, who lives in an apartment above his own apartment.  Now it is Nathan who has the heart condition and is rendered impotent. The novel continues to fluctuate the strands of the plot, placing these three characters in multiple relations to themselves and to one another.

This kind of post-modern meta-fictional stuff is more familiar to us now than it was 30 years ago, and it may be difficult for a new reader to understand just how groundbreaking this novel was (and is). But the power of The Counterlife lies not in its postmodern play, but in the way the meta-fictional structure of the narrative(s) become the ground on which Roth can animate his understanding of the complex relations among experience, identity, the self, narrative and fiction.

At the end of The Counterlife, Maria decides to "leave the book": "No, I won't do it. I will not be locked into your head in this way. I will not participate in this primitive drama, not even for the sake of your fiction." Nathan replies that "All I can tell you with certainty is that I, for one, have no self, and that I am unwilling or unable to perpetuate upon myself the joke of a self. .. . . What I have instead is a variety of impersonations that I can do, and not only of myself--a troupe of players that I have internalized, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required, an ever-evolving stock of pieces and parts that form my repertoire. . . . I am a theater and not more than a theater."

If the above paragraph strikes you as needlessly abstract and tiresomely postmodern, I want to emphasize that the passages I have quoted come at the end of a novel in which these ideas have been instantiated in ways that both dizzying and dazzling. The emotional subtleties and ambiguities, the tragic and comic dimensions of life--these the substance of the book. Roth was, within the next several years, to write a trilogy of books narrated by Nathan Zuckerman in which they (meaning both Roth and Zuckerman) put narrative truth to these notions. These three books, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, are all complex attempts by Roth, through Zuckerman, to imagine himself into a completely different person. They are self-consciously narrative recreations of the "biography" of someone completely different from the narrator Zuckerman, and his creator Roth. You do not need to have read The Counterlife to understand these books or to appreciate their achievement. But in The Counterlife, you can see how Roth made the remarkable turn that opened up the major middle part of his career.

I decided to re-read The Counterlife after Roth's death, and in the middle of my reading I found a lengthy (and glowing) NYRB review of a new novel, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, a book that has an avowed connection to Philip Roth. It is also a book about the attempt to imagine yourself into someone else's life.

Published this year, Asymmetry is the break-out bestselling first novel  by Lisa Halliday.  One, but definitely not the main, reason for its acclaim is that it alludes to an acknowledged relationship between Halliday and Roth, which occurred about 20 years ago when she was an assistant editor and he was a world famous novelist.  (Halliday and Roth remained friends in the subsequent 20 years.)   Asymmetry is divided into three sections.  The first section, set about the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, is the (surprisingly charming) story of a young woman named Alice who is an assistant editor and who has a relationship with a world famous novelist named Ezra Blazer.  The second section, set around 2008,  is the first-person account of a young American-Iraqi man named Amar Ala Jafari  who spends about eight hours being  interrogated in immigration security at Heathrow between flights from Los Angeles to Istanbul then Iraq.  The third section, a kind of coda, is the transcript of a radio show (called Dessert Island Discs) popular on BBC4 in the UK recorded in 2011 in which Blazer is interviewed.  

Roth acknowledged to the publisher of Asymmetry that Blazer is a version of him and further acknowledged that for the most part Halliday "got him right."  Halliday makes the parallels between Blazer and Roth so obvious, partly she says, to put the whole "anxiety of influence" thing right up front.  How could she be a writer, Alice asks herself: "hadn't he already said everything she wanted to say?"  But also the avowed connections between Blazer and Roth (similar families, yearly Nobel disappointment) point to just the  kind of ambiguous relations between life and art that were the substance of The Counterlife and that continued to be Roth's concern.  Alice wonders what kind of writer she can be:  "For her part, Alice was starting to consider really rather seriously whether a former choir girl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of be a Muslim man."  The answer appears to be yes, because that is what we get in the second section.

This section, written as first-person account, takes us into the mind of the young Ala Amar Jafari who is being interrogated at Heathrow.  Jafari has both American and Iraqui citizenship.  (He was born over US airspace when his parents immigrated to the U.S.)  Stopped in passport control in London, Jafari must prove his identity--and thus prove that he will not be a danger to the UK during the 36 hours he hoped to spend  with an old friend, before boarding his next flight.  The section is interspersed with tedious interview and Jafari's memories of his life up to this point, particularly the complexities of tangled loyalties to Iraqi and American heritages.

In the last section, Blazer is interviewed for a radio show which asks guests to select which CDs they would take to a desert island.  In the process of the interview, Blazer sheds some, perhaps ambiguous, light on the relation between the first two parts of the novel. Speaking of the current (i.e., up to 2011)  political madness, Blazer muses about the responsibility of the novelist during moments of political "madness:"  "And we wonder: How did this happen? What was I doing when this was in the works?  Anyway, what good will it do, the willful and belated broadening of my imagination?  A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel  about this, in its way  About the extent to which we're able to penetrate the looking glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.  It's a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do its author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her presence, her privilege, her naiveté." (That the "young friend's" name  is Alice is not fortuitous.)

Earlier, reading a draft of Ezra's work in progress, Alice  had asked "Who's speaking? Who's telling the story?"  Blazer answers, "What do you mean, the narrator's telling the story.  Finish it first, then we can talk about point of view."  But Alice's question is crucial, because  whoever "tells the story" is an important part of who makes the story.  And in this book, the question of the narrator (and his oft-but-not-always companion, the author) is crucial.  Particularly in Asymmetry--as it was in The Counterlife.

Narratologically speaking, this book is a labyrinth.  The first section is a third-person  narrator but focalized through Alice (that is from Alice's perspective).  The second section is first-person narrator, as is the third.  As Blazer reveals, Alice is the purported (or implied) author of the first two sections, but not the third.  But the first person Blazer in the third section is similar but not identical to the third-person Blazer in the first section (different family details).  Halliday is the implied (and flesh and blood) author of the book Asymmetry (including all  three sections) but she is not the narrator. Whew!  More  postmodern play or a complex rendering of the complicated relation between fiction and art? And behind that, an even more important question: to  what extent can a writer penetrate the looking glass and imagine a life, indeed, a consciousness, that goes some ways to reduce the blind spots in her own?

In his American trilogy, Roth attempted to do this three times.  In the last, The Human Stain, for example, he imagines  an academic (a classics professor) who is Black, but passes as a Jew because he wants to "be his own man" and not be defined by his ethnicity. In Asymmetry, Halliday imagines  a Muslim man.  None of this is autobiography; rather it comes (in some inexplicable ways) out of the experiences and imagination of the author.  In the first section of Asymmetry Alice finds a note Blazer wrote quoting Stephen Crane:  "an artist is nothing but a powerful  memory that can move itself at will  through certain experiences sideways."  The same passage reappears in the second section when Jafari is thinking of his brother.  The asymmetrical relations in Halliday's book are myriad: gender, geography, age, ethnicity and on and on.  Also asymmetrical is the dialectical flux between real-life and fiction, experience and imagination.  


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