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My Life As a Narrator

Justin Cober-Lake
Photo: Anthony Behar (Sipa USA/TNS)

Justin Cober-Lake looks at Philip Roth's My Life as a Man, an early and under-appreciated book in the writer's canon that sets the postmodern narrative tone for his future works.

My Life as a Man
Philip Roth



Philip Roth has created some of his best work by keeping his narratives unstable. His great protagonist Nathan Zuckerman often tells stories as told to him (as in American Pastoral), while offering us little guidance on how to negotiate these mediated tales. In Roth's oeuvre, postmodernism isn't about parody or pastiche; it's about the difficulty of obtaining knowledge, of never knowing if we know what we know. Or, more accurately, postmodernism itself isn't about anything; instead, art and life (and their imprecise intersections) are postmodern. Roth lives in this world.

Of course, we don't really know what world Roth lives in, and that's exactly his point. His series of novels placing him as the main character directly comment on the tie between art and life. In Operation Shylock, for example, the Roth character chases down the person pretending to be Roth whose causing political havoc in Israel. The work is called "A Confession", but we should safe in assuming that, however real the novel is, it isn't factual. How do I know that? I just do -- trust me.

My Life As a Man, written over 30 years ago, deals with these concerns in a nearly perfect and highly imaginative structure. Roth writes a book from the point of view of Peter Tarnopol, who, in turn, writes two stories and an autobiographical essay, the first two of which are narrated by Zuckerman, who would come back continually in the writings of Roth. And Zuckerman's stories (he's a writer, too) are constructed by Tarnopol from events in his own life, which are indecipherable until his autobiography, which Roth has created by teasing us with what might be taken from his real life. Confused? You're supposed to be (and that's me doing a functional rendering of a formalist reading of a text by another writer playing with disassociating discourses).

For some reason, Roth inspires this fruitless kind of autobiographical reading more than most writers, probably because he's had his fans wondering who the real Roth was ever since the fictional Portnoy took sexuality to whole new levels of hilarity. In reality, we've got no more reason to believe that Roth engages in sexual excesses -- of threesomes and public masturbation and glass coffee tables -- as that he changes transgressive impersonators across foreign lands. Philip Roth reduces himself to author function by calling attention to hidden author's bio that's been removed from and flaunted in his texts.

With its general conceit (and its divisions labeled as "fictions" and "true" parts), My Life As a Man begs for a strictly formalist analysis, demanding that narratologists and new critics to unfold its layers with as much persistence and dedication as for any text this side of Pale Fire. What makes the repeated reading so necessary is the seemingly superficial nature of the relationship between each of the smaller texts within the novel: author turns life into fiction and plays out thusly. Yet that type of reading leaves us disconcerted, with the feeling that correspondences are failing. Since they do fail, we have to return to that formal reading.

There isn't a one-to-one relationship between any of the fictions (true or otherwise) within the novel. The central relationship, of Tarnopol to his wife, works itself out in different ways in the Zuckerman tales, but Tarnopol, we must remember, is himself a creation. In case we forget, Roth (is he author one or three?) inserts Dr. Spielvogel into the text as Tarnopol's therapist. Spielvogel also puts Portnoy on the couch, so either Portnoy is real or Tarnopol isn't unless you consider that Portnoy must be real to Tarnopol.

The narrative play could be read endlessly to little end if it were only a game. The artistic ramifications of this structure come fairly straightforward, as Roth offers a model of the text-life relationship as compelling and as well crafted as anything in contemporary literature. For those of us interested in formal studies, it's an incredibly rewarding presentation of structure, self-conscious development, and implicit literary criticism.

To read art with a concern for context (even if it is the art's own concern with context) is to resist the text's internal bundling. In the case of My Life As a Man, we start no later than the title, which suggests reactionary gender content. Someone -- most likely one of the three authors of the book's pages, if any of the authors exist -- fulfills the promise of the title. Women turn into muses and harpies; they represent perfect beauty and wield vas deferens-slicing knives. In short, to be a man is to deal with archetypal femininity.

I have no more reason to suspect that Philip Roth is a sexist than I do to suspect that he becomes impotent in Israel. Roth's attentiveness to the structure of narrative removes him as an individual from the implications of his texts in a way that peers like Updike and Mailer don't have. Roth's texts aren't reflections on life. They are reflections on perceptions. In calling into question how we know, he undermines what we know. His characters don't defend, they just point out a lack of evidence.

My Life As a Man gets overlooked in the Roth canon, and yet it's a fundamental presentation of the views that would inform the lauded works that would follow. Zuckerman makes his first appearance and the epistemological questions immediately begin piling up. Art and life intersect and then dissect each other, and the nature of authorship never establishes itself. It's a great confluence under another who's done nothing but establish himself since then. Assuming that he actually exists.

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