Z Ya

Sarah Kerr has written an article for The New York Review of Books that is both a good introduction to and a fine elegy for Nathan Zuckerman, the “alter-writer” whose literary peregrinations have been documented by Philip Roth over the last 30 years or so. I think he first appeared in My Life As A Man, and way back then he was character created by that other alter writer, Peter Tarnapol. Yes, it’s a little confusing for the uninitiated, but you might as well start with Exit Ghost and work your way backwards. Here’s an excerpt from the NYRB article to inspire you:

Early on Roth mines Zuckerman ambitious, overeager young literary aspirant for comedy and musing about literature. Later we get the rich and doubt-wracked forty-year-old version, nearly undone by physical pain. Paranoiacs, ideologues, and even some justifiably angry people have drawn him into entertaining combat, their grievances evolving over the years. In the eerily moving meditation in The Counterlife on the writer’s process of imagining, Zuckerman even briefly appears to have dropped dead. Indeed, nearly as far back as two decades ago, Roth’s reliance on this sort of proxy—this navigator of literary fame, lightning rod for accusations, delighter in sex, and accepter of the guilty destiny of a writer to use people—was already so long, incident-filled, plainly divergent from his real life yet symbolically tangled up with it that in his memoir The Facts he could append to his own account a brutal critique written by none other than Zuckerman:

Dear Roth, I’ve read the manuscript twice. Here is the candor you ask for: Don’t publish—you are far better off writing about me than “accurately” reporting your own life. Could it be that you’ve turned yourself into a subject not only because you’re tired of me but because you believe I am no longer someone through whom you can detach yourself from your biography at the same time that you exploit its crises, themes, tensions, and surprises? Well, on the evidence of what I’ve just read, I’d say you’re still as much in need of me as I of you—and that I need you is indisputable. For me to speak of “my” anything would be ridiculous, however much there has been established in me the illusion of an independent existence. I owe everything to you, while you, however, owe me nothing less than the freedom to write freely. I am your permission, your indiscretion, the key to disclosure. I understand that now as I never did before.

And from there you should go directly to Operation Shylock or Sabbath’s Theater, which are about as good as it gets in modern fiction. My opinion, anyway.

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