Plot Against America

Philip Roth experiments with reality.


Originally published in the Jerusalem Post (September 29, 2004).

In an open letter to the critic Diana Trilling published in Reading Myself and Others (1975), Philip Roth enumerates the differences between himself and "Mr. Roth," the "character" who, in an essay, Trilling identifies as the author of Portnoy’s Complaint. Of course, Philip Roth is the author of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), but his message is clear: the written word is a dubious medium of representation. The "Mr. Roth" of Trilling’s review–a two-dimensional, reified sketch–bares no more of a direct relationship to the living breathing Philip Roth than does Alexander Portnoy. 

Literary Alter-Egos

Roth’s letter was penned three and a half decades ago, but it was not the last time he challenged the distinction between author and character, between fiction and reality. In 1979’s The Ghost Writer, Roth introduced us to Nathan Zuckerman, who’d serve as his alter ego in several subsequent novels. Yet while Roth and his creation share crucial biographical information–they’re both Jewish writers, born in Newark, whose early works inspired criticism from Members of the Tribe–Roth insists Zuckerman is a device, not a pseudonym.

Roth upped the stakes once again with The Facts (1988), subtitled A Novelist’s Autobiography. Why not just "An Autobiography"? Because Roth is aware that autobiographies are fundamentally suspect. Like a novel, an autobiography–and certainly the autobiography of a novelist–is a creative endeavor. Roth makes this point with a wink, opening The Facts with a letter addressed to none other than the fictional Nathan Zuckerman.

Nor did Roth stop there. There’s Deception (1990), a dialogue between two lovers, one of whom is named Philip and who has written about a character named Zuckerman; Patrimony (1991), subtitled "A True Story"–an inside joke for anyone who has read The Facts and knows what Roth thinks about narrative truth; and Operation Shylock (1993), which features a character named Philip Roth as well as a character masquerading as Philip Roth.

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