Oh, Zuckerman…

“I gave myself to him and he’ll never forgive me for it. He’s not merely a monster, he’s a great moralist too.”

—That’s from Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, although the edition I have is called Zuckerman Bound. It’s funnier still in context. I’m reading Zuckerman because I was inspired by a quote in Katie Roiphe’s much-discussed essay, “The Naked and the Conflicted:”

“The sight of the Zipper King’s daughter sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her legs flung apart, wantonly surrendering all 5 feet 9 inches of herself to a vegetable, was as mysterious and compelling a vision as any Zuckerman had ever seen.” I can’t decide what’s so compelling—I think it’s the middle, with the adverb adjective duo of “wantonly surrendering,” which seem like they should be pornographic but are mostly comic, or vice-versa. “Vice-versa” seems like a useful pair of words when dealing with Roth, because he’s constantly got me wondering exactly where in the circuit I stand: at the bottom, the top, the sides, somewhere else? It’s complexity that isn’t complex to read or enjoy.

Or maybe it’s something else about the sentence, like how incongruous or outrageous it is: the Zipper King has a sense of pathos, the idea of the daughter of the Zipper King is vaguely medieval despite the American seen, and the mystery that Zuckerman feels is almost religious in a very much not religious context. It’s got a lot of ingredients in the stew, and trying to pick them out isn’t easily accomplished, even if we appreciate the taste.

One response

  1. The Zuckerman seies is a good start in getting into Roth’s work. Once you’ve gotten through them, check out his late fiction (Everyman, Indignation, etc.).


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