That an extreme narrative self-consciousness emerges in Philip Roth's new novel hand-in-hand with a critique of psychoanalysis should come as no surprise. Roth has practiced the art of the "missing narrator" as well as the Freudian confessional, the one too shapeless, the other too patently ironic for his purposes. If the remarkable portraiture of Letting Go lacked the binding vision that a stronger narrator alone could have provided, the vision of Portnoy's Complaint consumed all but the narrative voice itself, a situation the novelist Peter Tarnopol describes in My Life as a Man as "the emotional ferocity of the argument" exceeding "by light-years the substantive issue."
The issue in Portnoy was Freud as the modern Jew's new Moses; though a Moses, the book suggests, whose promise of freedom enslaves one to psychoanalytic ways of thinking far more than it brings relief. Intoxicated by Portnoy's voice, Roth enjoyed wriggling in his Freudian cell too much to pay serious attention to his bondage. Even his jokes were based on a tacit acceptance of orthodox psychoanalytic assumptions, chief among them the belief that discernible Causes lie behind Behavior.
Those assumptions have at last become false, even to the Portnovian Roth whose humor persists in My Life as a Man; though against a far different background than that as of Freud as Fond Father.
Roth's reinterpretation of Freud is bound up in the new novel's self-reflective method. One of the book's more noticeable ironies, for example, is the rather spurious difference between Tarnopol's short stories ("Useful Fictions") and his autobiography ("My True Story"); a difference which seems at first to divide the novel neatly in two. The "tender pornography" of Nathan Zuckerman's misadventures in "Useful Fictions" is tighter perhaps than anything Roth has written since Goodbye, Columbus. The autobiography, by contrast, is difficult, at times even tedious in a way that recalls the long middle sections of Conrad's Lord Jim and Under Western Eyes. Yet to account for this difference in fluency by way of a psychoanalytic distinction between painful fact and pleasant fiction amounts to landing squarely in Roth's trap. Tarnopol is quick to point out why such a distinction is naive. "Tarnopol, as he is called," he writes of himself, "is beginning to seem as imaginary as my Zuckermans, or at least as detached from the memoirist - his revelations coming to seem like still another 'useful fiction,' and not because I am telling lies. I am trying to keep the facts."
Similarly, Dr. Otto Spielvogel, Portnoy's analyst and now Tarnopol's, reveals a predictable delusion during a session with his Artistic Patient: "The word 'narcissism' is purely descriptive and carries no valuation," he says in response to Tarnopol's charge that he wields the term reductively, "like a club." Spielvogel, that is, insists on the objectivity of psychoanalytic diction, an objectivity that no language, the novel claims, can ever possess. Spielvogel's insistence is all the more ludicrous because he has already spurned objectivity in the way he writes Tarnopol's case history.
In debunking the assumptions of orthodox psychoanalysis, Tarnopol approaches another Freud, hipper than the dogmatist evoked by disciples like Spielvogel or Ernest Jones. The Freud of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, for example, remarks that his scientific terms are really part of "a figurative language peculiar to psychology" and that even the chemical terms that might replace the psychological ones would themselves be "only part of a figurative language," too.
It is just such a sense of the figurative, or metaphoric, quality of all language - its lack of a straightforward relation to "things out there," its avowedly fictive nature - that pervades every scene, every change of text in the novel's shifting angles of vision. There are no "real" interpretations for anything. "I tended," says Zuckerman with irony, "like a student of high literature or a savage who paints his body blue, to see (my) migraines as standing for something, as a disclosure or 'epiphany,' isolated or accidental or inexplicable only to one who was blind to the design of life or a book. What did my migraines signify?" Tarnopol's reaction to Spielvogel's article may serve as the clue to a suitable reading. "'Oh, you ought to go through this thing, line by line, and watch the ground shift beneath you! Below every paragraph there's a hundred foot drop!'"
If this is true for reading "My True Story," imagine how "Useful Fictions" appears in retrospect! No wonder the first story, "Salad Days," begins with little Nathan learning to sign his name "right" for his father. "Who the hell can read something that looks like a train wreck!" scolds Mr. Zuckerman, as if to picture the result of speeding through the terrain of Roth's paragraphs.
Tarnopol the short story writer knows all about the common fictions that give meaning to people's experience. Characters and situations are defined in "Salad Days" by their likeness, for example, to pop stereotypes and commercial labels. Dancing his mother across the floor makes Nathan "another Fred Astaire," just as his girlfriend's father, Al "The Zipper King" Shatzky, refuses to change his name (his daughter wants a "real name") because he says he's a "trademark." More acutely, Tarnopol's wife Maureen leaves a suicide note in "My True Story" that bears only the repeated legend "Marilyn Monroe." And in "Courting Disaster," the second story in "Useful Fictions," Nathan becomes a lit major in college, allowing Tarnopol to deal in cliches closer to his own heart. Thus begins the parade of World Literature through Roth's dense, allusive pages - the extremes of Flaubert and Henry Miller, for example; of Impersonal Art and Passionate Confession; the question, finally, whether such a distinction is one of a kind or simply of skill.
In what seems to be a parody of the close of Joyce's "Ithaca" chapter in Ulysses (a parody that would de-parody Joyce's nonsense catalogue of Sinbads by giving them names), Tarnopol concludes the first part of the novel by listing a series of possible Causes for the sate of His Life ("Pent-up Rage or . . . Heroism or . . . Defiance or . . . Judaism"); all of them no more, of course, than "useful fictions"; a central text for the critique of Cause and Effect psychoanalysis. And yet Tarnopol - or should I say Roth now? - makes one complaint that's surely been relieved, even reversed: "instead of the intractability of serious fiction," he writes, "I got the intractability of soap opera."
Originally published in Crawdaddy, September, 1974