The Counterlife

By Philip Roth

Original Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Current Publisher: Vintage

Charles Yu writes:

I have a rule, which I guess I’ll go ahead and call The Rule of 50/2: if I can make it to page 50 of a novel within my first two sittings with a book, I am probably going to finish it. It’s not really a rule, of course. There are plenty of books I start in a rush of excitement, reading the first 100, 150 pages within a couple of nights, only to lose steam in the back half until, at some point, I put the book down for good. But for the most part, if I get through those first 50 pages quickly enough, I’m going to make it to the last page.

The Rule of 50/2 is really about momentum. From a standing start, a novel has to generate enough momentum to make the reader want to work through sixty thousand, eighty thousand, a hundred fifty thousand words. And, at least for this reader, no one generates momentum faster than Philip Roth. With Roth, I’m fifty pages in before I even take a breath. No other writer does this for me the way he does—instant and complete immersion into a consciousnes—and within minutes of starting, I know I’m hooked. Reading Roth doesn’t feel like reading, it feels more like listening. And reading Roth at his best doesn’t even feel like listening: it feels like thinking. Only with someone else’s mind.

The Counterlife is no exception. It’s a Zuckerman novel, and familiarity with the character caused my immersion into the story to be even quicker than normal. Which is how it happened that I was almost a third of the way through (done with the first section and well into the second) before realizing that something very strange was going on with the structure of the book.

The novel is divided into five parts: Basel, Judea, Aloft, Gloucestershire and, finally, Christendom. In Basel, we have the beginnings of what seem like a more conventional Roth novel, if such a thing can be said to exist: Henry Zuckerman (Nathan’s brother) is living in New Jersey, married with children, proprietor of what we understand to be a fairly lucrative dental practice, and generally enjoying the fruits of domestic and professional success. It is, or should be, an enviable life, but Henry dreams of another life, a life with Maria, a woman with whom he’d been having an affair before she moved away with her own family to Switzerland. To distract himself from thoughts of the life he doesn’t have, Henry has sex with his very young assistant Wendy every night before going home. It’s a diversion for Henry, a substitute, his only degree of freedom in what he feels to be a life of constraints. And yet, even this is some consolation, both physically and otherwise, for Henry. Even Wendy, young as she is, understands the source of the thrill:

It was, it was wild, it made us crazy—it was the strangest thing I’d ever done. We did it for weeks, pretending like that, and she kept saying, “Why is it so exciting when all we’re pretending to be is what we are?”

But when Henry is rendered impotent by the medication he is required to take due to a heart condition, he is left with a choice (at least as he sees it). He can risk his life for his erection, or he can live as he is, unable to act on his desires, faithful to his wife and his life not by choice, but because all other possibilities have been extinguished.

Sounds like a Philip Roth novel, right? If there were an algorithm for generating a Roth-like plot, a machine that could take specified inputs and use them to create a synopsis for a novel that could plausibly have been written by Roth (the Carnovsky 5000), wouldn’t this be the output? Something is suspicious about this very Roth-like plot, which seems almost too much like Roth.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what it is. The next four sections bring us, in turn, to Israel (Judea), thirty thousand feet in the air (Aloft), and London (Gloucestershire) and, finally, to London again, but then to somewhere much stranger, somewhere outside the fourth wall (Christendom), somewhere between “the counterlife” as a concept and the driving idea of this book, and The Counterlife, the very book in the reader’s hands. In a novel full of doubles and surrogates, the most astonishing double of all turns out to be the novel itself, the overall shape of which is a kind of mirrored object, with the short third section acting as the axis of reflection, and the second half reversing, and in a way overwriting, the first half.

I don’t want to give away too much, though. It wouldn’t be fair to deprive the potential reader of the particular pleasures of The Counterlife, especially the pleasure of slow realization, realization of the ingenious conceit of the book as it unfolds, section by section, as its layers of complexity accumulate until the fullness of its complexity becomes clear, how each part works against and with each other part, from the large scale of the structure, down to the smallest details, even the book’s title. If, as is surmised by Henry Zuckerman, every book has its own counterbook, then The Counterlife is both the exception and the rule: it is its own counterbook.

Charles Yu was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection for his short story collection, Third Class Superhero. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, was a New York Times Notable Book and named by Time magazine as one of the Best Books of 2010. His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other places. He lives in Santa Monica with his wife and their two children. (Photo: Michelle Jue)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: Larry Heinemann for Paco’s Story

Fiction Judges That Year: Not Available

The Year in Literature:

  • A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Joseph Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for literature.

More Information: Roth won the National Book Award for Fiction twice: in 1960 for Goodbye, Columbus and in 1995 for Sabbath’s Theater. He was also a Fiction Finalist three other times: in 1975 for My Life as a Man, in 1980 for The Ghost Writer, and in 1985 for Anatomy Lesson.


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