This is a review of a book by the same title by Philip Roth. It is a big-hearted book exploring a myriad of themes written in an almost stream of consciousness style.
Roth writes in the third person form of Nathan Zuckerman, a best-selling author who is practically incapacitated from chronic pain. He has been enduring debilitating pain for 18 months when the book begins – with him literally lying on a children’s plastic playmat on the floor (the only position that somewhat relieves the ache). All apparent avenues of healing having been explored: the dozens of doctors, diagnoses and contraptions, the lovers and girlfriend-nurses, the why’s and where-to-for’s and doubts endured and discarded, along with a Doctor of Dolorology who offers him the best looking “way out of pain”, yet it requires a surrender to a care and state Nathan refuses to submit to. In ballsy independence he declares his pain not real to him and resolves to apply for medical school. After cussing out his biggest literary critic (who is also sick at home) he arms himself with a volley of pain-killers and makes off by plane from Newark to Chicago, and to a meeting with his college roommate turned Doctor, Bobby. He wills to convince his friend to go along with his determined fate.
He ends up riding around in his alma mater’s town inside of a limousine (his driver is female). Along with checking out his old stomping grounds, he unleashes the force of his pent-up rage by calling himself Milton Appel (his literary critic nemesis) and improvising a narrative of his life as a pornographer of the taboo- with heavy emphasis on his service to the common man and woman and a dollop of self-righteousness for having the courage to piss off and everyone who disapproves of him. Is this persona his cure? he seems to inquire.
Add to this mix the reflections on his controversial fourth novel – a best-selling fiction that practically desecrates the values his parents and his parents parents appear to hold (the former only recently deceased, the latter, having had no where near the amount of opportunities of Nathan) -, the daily grind of the writer’s life – which appears more and more distasteful, though familiar, and his three marriages lost to the lifestyle, all within a backdrop of Jewish heritage , with emphasis on, one would say, the universal themes of lineage, genes, expectations, sense of right and wrong, both pride and disgust of nationalistic movements near and far and the old way versus new ways of being in the world and we see:
He’s in pain. He’s full of drugs. Nathan has exhausted his resource. His mother is dead, his brother is not speaking with him after the blasphemous best-seller, and his father’s last words to him were a curse. He senses a new freedom on the horizon if he can balance his desire to thrust forth in his new and euphoric rootlessness with his growing longing, yearning and even demand for a relationship with himself and connection with others outside of previously assigned roles.
Commentary: There are so many moments of keen insite, phantastic compassion, dazzling humor and depth of connection in these pages of fiction that I find a lovely companion in all that it mirrors for me. Having had bouts of chronic pain and knowing that the message they contain cannot be felt anywhere but within – and then living their truth as a route to freedom, this is the adventure story of being fully human. Blasphemy is no longer blasphemous, the cross of christ can be alluded to as the flip side of the coin of living fully: to one’s own life an offering of endurance, understanding and essentially immortal orientation. Then, and only then, to return to the work of the day. For thus are we armed with the weightless realization of time within no-time. As to Nathan, Roth has us leave him in while in a state of awe and wondrous renewal. As a patient, now, still with a sick body yet visiting other sick bodies while making the rounds with doctors in a Chicago hospital.