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Lost & Found: David Naimon on Philip Roth
Gilda and I had broken up, I don’t know, perhaps ten times. The back-and-forth was so notorious by then, had become so tiresome and ridiculous to our peers, that on the blackboard in the entranceway to our medical school there were two squares drawn in dedication to us, one labeled “on,” the other “off.” A check mark would toggle between the two, so you could keep track of our tumult and trauma like the daily weather report. It was always Gilda who cheated, Gilda who left, and always me who inexplicably begged her to come back.
But this time was for real. We’d been broken up for months and I’d been having a passionate summer romance with another woman, just before we fresh graduates would be scattered across the country, Gilda mercifully heading to the opposite coast.
Before our latest split, I had loaned Gilda a copy of Philip Roth’s oft-overlooked masterpiece of relationship malfunction, My Life as a Man, a copy I’d frankly forgotten that she had until the day I found it on my back porch, spine broken, whole pages torn out as if in a spasm of unbridled rage. It wasn’t until days later that I discovered she hadn’t dismantled My Life as a Man in a blind fury. The raised garden bed in my backyard was covered with tiny fragments of paper, meticulously ripped pieces of Roth’s prose mulching my vegetables. It must have taken her hours and come from a colder, slower burning emotion, one that prompted her not only to tear and tear and tear but also to slide these fragments delicately between individual leaves of various heads of lettuce. It was then that I realized that My Life as a Man meant as much to Gilda as it did to me.
Published in 1974, My Life as a Man is Roth’s second, lesser-known foray into confessional fiction, a subgenre that intentionally blurs the distinctions between literature and memoir and whose prime example at that time was Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint. But whereas Portnoy’s Complaint consists of Alexander Portnoy’s tragicomic monologue from a psychoanalyst’s couch, My Life as a Man portrays one man’s search for self-understanding through the act of writing.
The protagonist, Peter Tarnopol, a writer and English professor, finds himself in a relationship, and, ultimately, a marriage, with Maureen, whom he comes to see as a monster. Desperate, manipulative, aggressive, and unreasonable, Maureen is the epitome of the gentile barbarity his parents had warned him about. Yet Peter can’t walk away, and he’s tormented by his inability to understand why. Peter turns to writing to figure it out. In fact, the book in our hands is the result of Peter’s endeavor, My Life as a Man a record of his various attempts to make sense of things.
The book is split into two sections: the first, “Useful Fictions,” contains two short stories; the second, “My True Story,” is Peter’s attempt at memoir. It is in the latter section, which makes up the bulk of the book, that we learn that the two short stories at the beginning were Peter’s initial attempts at understanding himself through writing fiction. But Peter’s use of fiction as a means of uncovering the truth proves disastrous. By the end of the second story he has thrown up his hands in defeat, kicked down the fourth wall, broken the fictive spell, and succumbed to addressing the reader directly, telling us he can’t continue. Despite everything being true in these fictions, he’s sure the stories don’t work, he tells us. They’re not believable, the protagonist’s motivations for staying with Maureen are completely unconvincing, the essence of his torment uncaptured on the page.
Peter despairs that he’s failed to elevate his life to art, to find “Flaubertian transcendence,” to do for his neurosis what Thomas Mann did for tuberculosis. And so he resigns himself in the second part of the book to what he calls the “low road of candor,” telling it like it is, the way it really happened, abandoning all pretense of art and, in essence, confessing. At first glance, one might assume that Roth is asserting the power of memoir here, elevating nonfiction to the status of literature, arguing for it as the most effective way to bridge the existential gulf of loneliness between people, particularly since this section is Roth at his most visceral and powerful.
But remember this is the memoir of a fictional character, and thus ultimately not a memoir at all. Rather, Roth is cleverly reasserting the durability and protean flexibility of the novel as a form, even while undermining and fragmenting its most characteristic elements.
Of course, I wasn’t aware of the postmodern absurdity of my giving Gilda this book. Nor did I realize the subtext of what I was saying by gifting it to her—that I was the reasonable one, the innocent victim, and that she, like Maureen, knew no bounds, was out of control, and had me at her mercy, a force like a hurricane, tornado, the natural disaster of your choice. But while Peter’s perspective is all-encompassing for 99 percent of the book (and as a reader I was fully aligned with his plight), Roth pulls the rug out from under us in the final pages, giving us glimpses of Maureen’s journal entries (in which she appears surprisingly reasonable) and of the glowing impressions of her admiring friends. Everything we’ve read before is thrown into question, but not because Peter has lied to us.
Quite the contrary. Roth is arguing here that no narrative, even one with the best intentions, can achieve objectivity. Peter can only be Peter, can only put forth his subjective reality. His memoir is essentially a fiction, as all memoirs, with their arbitrary choices of what to include and what to omit, ultimately are. And while Peter’s narrative dominates the book, My Life as a Man is really a book of two colliding narratives, a book that grapples with the inherent subjectivity of consciousness. Through its two “useful” fictions and its one “true” story, it creates and tears down three personas; it asserts and then undermines the cohesion of the narrative voice and the form of the novel itself.
Maureen controlled Peter’s narrative—cutting short certain interactions, prolonging others, keeping him from writing or thinking about anything else but her—fragmenting Peter much as Gilda literally fragmented my paperback copy of My Life as a Man, breaking the book into fortune cookie–sized messages that I’d discover for months while gardening. Phrases like “you are a heartless selfish writing machine” and “ice in your heart instead of feelings” would reinsert Gilda into my life long after our relationship had ended.
But what details have I left out in the retelling? All summer long, the person I had been sleeping with was Gilda’s best friend, and I had done so without Gilda knowing. When she learned what I’d done, she could think of no better book to tear up than the terribly biased tale of one man’s failed attempt to understand and justify his weakness. Does this change your view of me, of this whole endeavor? Roth would expect so, each detail included or excluded, no matter how earnest the telling, changing the spell that’s woven. And like a snake eating its tail, upon finishing the book, you’ll want to revisit the short stories at the beginning of My Life as a Man in an endless and fruitless, yet surprisingly satisfying, search for the truth.
David Naimon is a writer, physician, and radio host of the literary program Between the Covers in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The Missouri Review, StoryQuarterly, and ZYZZYVA, among others.