Book Review: The Facts, by Philip Roth

The Facts is the autobiography of novelist Philip Roth.  If you’ve never read Roth, you should.  He’s famous for writing semi-autobiographical novels that are outrageously candid and extremely funny.  He has an ease and confidence about writing that allows him to create people and places that are simply aliveso alive, in fact,  that readers are often left wondering where fiction ends and reality begins. In The Facts, Roth attempts to lay out the real facts of his life as he seems them. But, as the book’s last chapter underscores, autobiography can never reveal the truth as candidly or interestingly as fiction can.

In addition to his novels, Roth is famous for two other things: (1) his literary alter-ego, Nathan Zukerman, the fictional writer whose life and neuroses mirror Roth’s own; and (2) for being a Jewish writer at odds with the community that reared him.  In fact, his early (and terrific) short stories “Defender of the Faith” and “The Conversion of the Jews” created a firestorm in which Jewish leaders accused him of being self-hating and antisemitic. Roth’s autobiography revolves around six episodes that shaped his life and his work:  “Prologue” is about his father and mother; “Safe at home,” the story of his childhood in Newark, New Jersey; “Joe College,” about his formative years at Bucknell University; “Girl of My Dreams,” about his early literary success and the start of his relationship with a broken, blond-haired gentile he calls Josie; “All in the Family,” the disintegration of that marriage and its aftermath; and “Now Vee May Perhaps to Begin,” about the firestorm within the Jewish community over his first books.  The book then ends with a summary and analysis from Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman.

But unfortunately, bare facts here don’t make the picture any clearer.  “Until now I have always used the past as the basis for transformation, for, among other things, a kind of intricate explanation to myself of my world.”  But nothing in The Facts comes off half as clear as what comes at the books end.  In fact, Roth’s Facts paint him as something of a jerk — an intelligent and talented and confident man, but a jerk nonetheless.  And never more so when he writes about his first wife, Josie.  He makes it abundantly clear that Josie is a gentile and broken — broken despite her gentile background while he is marvelously well-adjusted despite his Jewish one. And although their disparate backgrounds initially pull them together, Josie’s emotional baggage eventually proves too much to bear.  She even fakes a pregnancy so that Roth will marry her, which he does.  From there things just get worse, with Josie clinging to him out of need and Roth unable to escape because of antiquated marriage laws and his own sense of obligation.

The reader may take even this in stride, but the real problem comes when, no matter how unrelated, the stories in The Facts keep arcing back towards Josie.  Everyone’s a victim, but no one more than him.  He’s even a victim of himself, as when he writes, “My disastrously confused, unaccountable sense of personal obligation was once again activated by the wreckage of her chaotic emotional past.”  He bears her a grudge that’s all too plain, and he even begrudges Josie’s attempt to embrace the religion that he’s forsaken — hence, “To me, being a Jew had to do with a real historical predicament into which you were born and not with some identity you chose to don after reading a dozen books.”  And when, finally, Roth is rid of her after a violent and unfortunate car accident, his only thought is, “You’re dead and I didn’t have to do it.”

So in the end, The Facts in Roth’s own words are just that — a collection of names and dates and events that in themselves don’t reveal a whole lot, not even much about what Roth actually thinks and feels.  They don’t even reveal a lot about his writing other than that he read a lot in college and found successful early. But in the last chapter, through the lens of Nathan Zuckerman, the facts become clear — Roth is a talented but angry and conflicted man.  It’s only through Zuckerman that Roth gains the distance necessary to write about his life truthfully.  In a fictional letter to Roth regarding the manuscript, Zuckerman writes:

“Can everything about Josie have been vengeful?  I suspect that Josie was both worse and better as a human being than what you’ve portrayed here.”

“I accept that one never gets any more from life than adulterated pleasure, but how much longer are we to be bedeviled by his Jewish fixation! I refuse to allow him to make that into a major problem again!”

And then this invaluable insight:

“He’s not telling the truth about his personal experience . . . The only person capable of commenting on his life is his imagination.”

So in the end, Roth seems to have proven why he should never write biography again: it just can’t compare to the force and the truth of fiction.


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