Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Anatomy Lesson (1983)

In Philip Roth's The Anatomy Lesson (1983), the third book in the Zuckerman Bound trilogy (which will close with The Prague Orgy, a novella), our hero, the successful author Nathan Zuckerman, is in pain and all out of ideas.

His father died at the end of the last book, and his beloved mother died three years ago. His only other family, a brother with whom he was never that close, has completely cut off ties with him, blaming their father's death on the shame caused the family by Zuckerman's last book, Carnovsky. But more than all that, more than anything else, is the horrible pain in his neck and shoulders that has incapacitated him for the past 18 months. No doctor can diagnose it. No alternative therapies help it. The best he can do is take Percodan, drink vodka, and spend most of his time lying flat on his back on a playmat he has installed in the center of his living room. Since he is currently between wives, Zuckerman has accumulated a set of four women (his financial consultant's wife, an heiress attending the nearby college, a rather hilariously depressive Polish immigrant who treats Zuckerman at the hair loss clinic, and a wholesome artist who lives in the country) who come to his apartment and cook him food, run his errands, listen to his complaints, tell their stories, and not infrequently have sex with him in various pain-free positions. They are, however, of little comfort to Zuckerman who can't write and isn't even sure if he still wants to.

The sometimes stifling inaction of the first half of the book explodes into a drug-fueled trip to Chicago in the second half of the book where Zuckerman spends part of his time pretending to be a pornographer and the rest of his time trying to get into medical school. As you might imagine, neither of these pursuits has really come to anything by the end of the novel, although after a nicely constructed climax, Zuckerman does find himself spending time with the hospital interns as they go through their rounds.

Zuckerman is a jerk, insensitive, difficult to please, unyielding, parasitic, and cruel. He is also often very funny, lonely, misunderstood, forgiving, and easily hurt. His art has been primarily motivated by his tension with a hard working Jewish father who never understood his son, and now (after a crushing last word) is dead, and his Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey that all the Jews moved away from. He has plenty of money. He's famous. But he is unable to write, unable to be satisfied, and even if he stops writing and becomes a doctor, it is hard to picture Nathan Zuckerman ever being happy.

Maybe The Prague Orgy has a happy ending?

No comments: