ALEXANDER PORTNOY complained that he was living in the middle of a Jewish joke--the Jewish joke of his whole life, as told to his shrink Dr. Spielvogel. That joke ended with Spielvogel supplying the punch line: "And now vee may perhaps to begin?"
Which suggests that for Philip Roth, a novel has something to do both with telling the jokes that we live and that are all around us and with telling them on the analyst's couch, while trying at once to discover and to hide some essential self. Now Roth has brought Dr. Spielvogel back, and for nothing so much as to minister to writing and writers themselves. If Portnoy's Complaint taught us about a whole new malady through a novel, then My Life as a Man tries to teach us about the malady of the novel itself.
Spielvogel here treats a writer named Peter Tarnopol whose career is strikingly similar to Roth's. Tarnopol wrote a very successful, prize-winning, reputation-making first novel but then got into a disastrous marriage; he has not written much since. Now, "pussy-whipped" as he is by bitch-wife Maureen, he has decided to write "My True Story," the autobiography included as the second part of Roth's novel. Two of Tarnopol's stories--"Useful Fictions"--make up the first part.
The stage is set for a direct confrontation between life and fiction, drawn around the question of what fiction can say and do about life. The novel as joke has here turned to novel as formal trick, parentheses within parentheses, document inside document. And throughout runs a sense that Roth has put himself on the couch, decided to give up fictions and smokescreens, but then gone back on himself: he can't help lying, he can't help making fiction even--or maybe especially--of his own life.
For, as Tarnopol himself says, "his self is to many a novelist what his own physiognomy is to a painter of portraits: the closest subject at hand demanding scrutiny, a problem for his art to solve--given the enormous obstacles to truthfulness, the artistic problem." The novelist, of course, has to do more than stare at his reflected countenance. He has to distance himself from it to see it better and convert his topic from private exorcism to public explanation, from case to disease. And that is exactly what Roth fails to do here: the account is not just that of his own life, even if both he and Peter Tarnopol had wives killed in auto accidents and underwent analysis, but an account caught impotently in the middle, too flat for fiction and too exaggerated for life.
The way Roth tries to get from life to fiction depends on formal tricks, in an effort to refine and accentuate the pure material. It is symptomatic that Roth should have his hero, through the account of his unhappy marriage and a couple of affairs, keep quoting from Flaubert, the original great modern impersonalist. Because Tarnopol can no longer just live his personal life. He has not just read too many novels, like Madame Bovary; he has read too many novels like Madame Bovary. He is condemned to work out the hassles of his marriage in a long, unfinished and unfinishable novel. His wife Maureen--whose perfumed adoration and melodramatic rages recall Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother--is the instrument which most threatens his manhood, most demands defense through the only means he knows--writing. Maureen claims that she could be Tarnopol's Muse, if only he'd let her. The problem is exactly that she is his Muse, irresistibly, inescapably. She is what his literary psychoanalysis is all about.
The novel where Tarnopol has tried to order the disorder of his marriage lies, in reams of rejected drafts and re-drafts, in several cardboard cartons. On them the writer has pasted a quotation from Flaubert, speaking of how art can become "an outlet for passion, a kind of chamberpot to catch an overflow. It smells bad; it smells of hate." So, however, does Roth's book, despite all the cool distance of formal self-consciousness: it is impossible to read a book which treats a writer's life with such sordid particularity and not find oneself automatically extending the sordidness to the real writer.
And Tarnopol's account definitely has the chamberpot stench. He tells how, in an uncontrollable fit of anger, he literally beat the shit out of his wife. When he learned how she had tricked him into marrying her by faking a pregnancy test--she bought a pregnant woman's urine on the street--he went into a frenzy and ended up inexplicably donning some of his wife's underwear. All of this--even if safely banished to a past behind Tarnopol telling how he told Spielvogel about it--still leaves an impression of twisted relationships and crude impulses in conflict that is not easy to forget.
THE PASSION seems even more paradoxical because it lies under the cool formal surface. The formal tricks strain toward a big-league style that Roth simply does not possess--Roth seems to have been reading Nabokov. He includes a whole series of "found" documents. There are Tarnopol's writings, and within them letters, an article written by Spielvogel, a paper by one of Tarnopol's students, and a couple of strange memos commenting on Tarnopol's writing produced by none other than Lane Coutell and his wife Frances: Salinger's Franny has married her college boyfriend and both, thanks to Roth, are now editing a literary magazine.
But this is more than Roth can handle. The poke at Salinger juts oddly out of place, and the parodies of other writing aren't very funny. For all his frequent flashes of skill, Roth is swinging wildly. He is trying to be winning, trying to disarm our reaction to all the ugliness in Tarnopol's life, trying to get us to laugh it all off. He confronts head-on the inevitable tendency to link novel and author by trying to turn it into yet another novelistic joke, luring us into the connection and then proving how unjustified it is, how distanced the material has become. He is trying to turn the joke on us, and in the process turn life into fiction.
What Roth fails above all to do is convince us that the story is an important one, somehow privileged above everyday life. He wants us to agree with Tarnopol's assertion that in the end his "True Story" has become just another "useful fiction." What he proves in fact is only the complexity of the relation between fiction and life, how they can mutually invade each other's territory and both lose a locked combat. To show that is for Roth to put himself as a novelist on the couch of literary analysis, hoping to show that the novel is not dead or sick, only disturbed in mind. But just to talk about the problems is not enough: Roth should take Spielvogel's advice and "perhaps to begin" again.