The Counterlife

The Counterlife



The Pequod Review:

Philip Roth always had a gift for observational detail and natural dialogue, but starting with The Counterlife he wrote a series of novels that joined these talents with narratives of considerably greater depth. When the book begins, Nathan Zuckerman is describing his brother Henry, whose medication for a serious heart condition has made him impotent. Henry's only alternative is a risky and life-threatening heart operation, and in his sexual desperation he solicits Nathan’s guidance. The chapters that follow show alternate perspectives (or counterlives) where, for example, Nathan’s narration was actually the eulogy he wrote for Henry’s funeral after a failed operation, or where Henry survived the operation but later abandons his family to move to Israel, or where Nathan is actually the one with the heart condition and his mistress describes the impact of his death to her therapist. 

The Counterlife is complex and inventive throughout, as it considers themes of sexual desire, the longing for transformation and reinvention, and the human need for a personal narrative:

And as he spoke, I was thinking, "the kind of stories that people turn life into, the kind of lives people turn stories into.” 

"Things don't have to reach a peak. They can just go on. You do want to make a narrative out of it, with progress and momentum and dramatic peaks and then a resolution. You seem to see life as having a beginning, a middle, an ending, all of them linked together with something bearing your name. But it isn't necessary to give things a shape. You can yield to them too. No goals -- just letting things take their own course. You must begin to see it as it is: there are insoluble problems in life, and this is one."

Highly recommended.