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Philip Roth-Countertexts, Counterlives
by:Debra B. Shostak
"I think of my life as one long speech that I've been listening to . . . how to think, how not to think; how to behave, how not to behave; . . . the book of my life is a book of voices," reflects Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's alter ego, in I Married a Communist. Looking at Roth's writing life as a "book of voices," Debra Shostak listens in on the...
"I think of my life as one long speech that I've been listening to . . . how to think, how not to think; how to behave, how not to behave; . . . the book of my life is a book of voices," reflects Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's alter ego, in I Married a Communist. Looking at Roth's writing life as a "book of voices," Debra Shostak listens in on the conversations that this prominent American novelist has conducted with himself and his times over forty years and twenty-four books. She finds that while Roth frequently shifts perspectives, he repeatedly returns to interrelated questions of cultural history, literary history, and, especially, selfhood. Arguing that Roth's method of composition, like his conception of self, is fundamentally dialogical, Shostak follows the writer from his depictions of embodied, ethnically determined selves to his exploration of indeterminate selves revealed in the public spaces of confession and historical trauma. Shostak demonstrates that for Roth no perspective gains ascendancy over another, nor does he work the various viewpoints toward a synthesis. Instead, his countertexts simply "talk" to one another. For this reason Shostak does not treat Roth's canon chronologically but pursues a complex thematic investigation of the concerns that preoccupy Roth: masculinity, embodiment, male sexuality, Jewish American identity, the pressures of recent American history on the self, and storytelling as an act of both fictive imagination and quasi-autobiographical disclosure. She arranges the study to enable the reader to understand how the individual fictions and memoirs intersect and cohere and where they depart from and disrupt one another. In addition to offering fresh, informed readings of Roth's work, Shostak provides new insights from the virtually untapped archives of the Philip Roth Collection at the Library of Congress.
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