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I loved Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. It was one of those rare books that could make me feel a multitude of emotions and it took me by surprise. It is rare that books truly take me by surprise and have unexpected twists in the plots. This book did everything.
In the beginning this book offended me. I was outraged by the raw, raunchiness of it. I hated the character of Henry. He disgusted me. I hated the way he left his family to have an affair. I hated the way he risked his life to have a dangerous and unnecessary heart surgery just so he wouldn’t be impotent anymore so that he could continue his sexual affair with his dental assistant. I hate how immoral he was. I hated the way the book seemed so raw and sexual as well. I’ll admit I may be a bit biased in thinking that as my initial reaction though. I read this book as part of required reading for Dr. Jesse Zuba’s The American Novel class. The first week we began reading this book I was chosen to lead the class in discussion about it. The chapter, Basel, discussed Henry’s sex life (or lack thereof) in detail, making for a rather awkward class discussion, to say the least.
The second chapter, Judea amused me and broadened my way of thinking. I found it interesting the way that Henry decided to go to Judea after his surgery to try to recreate himself into an overly zealous Jew, abandoning everything in life just for his religion and for a chance to connect with his born heritage. I liked the arguments about identity and the questions raised. Does our ancestry or heritage really matter? How do we identify ourselves? Is our identity in our blood or is it in our lifestyle? I never really gave this much thought, but Roth makes an interesting point. Yes, I have Irish, Scottish and Germany blood — but is this really part of my identity? I’m proud of my heritage, but I’m not sure I’d say I identify with it. My identity is that of an American. America is all I’ve ever known. I’ve never been to Scotland, Ireland, or Germany. I can’t begin to tell you anything about it because I’ve never had any experiences with it.
Gloucestershire served as the climax of the novel and the point where I realized just how much of a gem this novel truly is. In this chapter we learn that everything we were previously set up to believe was all a lie. We were never reading about Henry’s life at all, but rather, Nathan’s life fictionalized to be Henry’s. We were reading the first few chapters of Nathan’s novel. Suddenly Nathan didn’t seem as innocent or revolutionary to me anymore. I HATED him. How dare he write such things about all of his family members! I was outraged! But then I thought to myself — he is a writer. This is what writers do — they write fiction. They make things up. But was what he was doing ethical? Was it right?
I am a writer, just like Nathan. When I read about the way that Nathan disguised his own life in his writing by pretending these things happened to others in his life, I began to question the ethics of writing. Would I have done the same thing? It’s hard to say. Mostly everything I write, whether fiction or non-fiction, has been influenced by people I know in real life. I have written fiction stories with real people doing extreme things. I have written fiction stories based on real life events that were exaggerated just like Nathan did. Although I am outraged and offended by Nathan, I realize there’s many times that I’ve done very similar, if not the same, things as Nathan. Nathan is just the typical writer using his writing as a way to express himself and maybe say things he wasn’t to say but doesn’t know how to. With writing a person can wear a mask. They can change life and cater it to be exactly as they see it or want to see it. Looking back, although at first I was initially offended by it, maybe this isn’t such a problem afterall. Writing is creative. It allows us to make ourselves and those around us into anything we want them to be. The danger doesn’t lie in writing, but rather, life when it comes to role playing and identity creation. When we try to be or make others into things that they are not in real life, that’s a real problem. It’s best to just let those things stay in fictional worlds in the written word.
The Counterlife gets a full five star rating from me for raising interesting questions about life and ethics that I have not previously considered, taking me by surprise in ways I never could have imagined, and helping me to re-examine and re-evaluate my own life. Not many books have as much power as this one does, making this one a true stand-out gem.