Roth – a bit of an American institution – is well-known for using literature to work through his own personal issues – and I would argue that he uses this unusually structured novel to work through his complex relationships with women.
The first half of the novel are two short stories around a character called Nathan Zuckerman, a character who appears acting in lieu of Roth in a few of his novels. The two stories surround Zuckerman’s marriage to a woman who could only be described as damaged goods, sexually ambivalent and emotionally scarred. But somehow he keeps feeling the need to “make things work” with her, although it is clear to both of them that they are not. The second story involves Zuckerman falling in love with his step-daughter, whom he deflowers and whisks off to Italy after the aforementioned wife commits suicide. In this way, Roth toys with the idea of Zuckerman raising his own ideal woman, although she is certainly not totally presented in an idealistic or dream-like manner.
Then, the rest of the novel deals with the character who writes the Zuckerman stories – like Roth, to deal with his complex relationships with women. Peter Tarnapol foolishly married a psychologically unhinged woman in his early twenties and spent the rest of HER life trying to get away from her. Even after he finally separates from her (she never permits him a divorce, although she does commit suicide eventually, and after several failed or mock attempts), he never truly leaves her behind, reading into the intentions of his new girlfriend Susan, who has issues of her own.
Mostly this is just depressing as Tarnapol never entirely comes to terms with his own needs and inadequacies and the women – bonkers as they are portrayed – never really improve and certainly never function independently of him. A feminist would find a lot to dislike in this novel’s portrayal of women. But it is a good one to have under my belt. I find I am not a huge fan of this kind of modern American literature, and especially the narrative voice found herein. But I didn’t put it down either. I wanted to know if there would be any answers in the end. There aren’t really. We all have issues. But we do need to try to choose the people that bring out the best in us rather than the worst.