Phillip Roth’s novel Zuckerman Unbound
(1981) follows Nathan Zuckerman, who debuted in Roth's earlier novel The Ghost Writer.
Zuckerman's story continues in The Anatomy
Lesson (1983). The trilogy was later published as Zuckerman Bound.
The events of the novel are loosely based on Roth's own life (although to what extent has been a matter of debate). One of the most celebrated American writers, over his career, Roth accumulated numerous awards, including the National Book Award (twice), National Book Critics Award (twice), the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times), and a Pulitzer in 1997 for American Pastoral
(which also features Nathan Zuckerman). In 2001, he received the Franz Kafka Prize in Prague.
The year is 1969, and Nathan Zuckerman, echoing Roth, has become a sudden and unlikely celebrity because of his latest book. Zuckerman's book Carnovsky
has caused a scandal with its forthright depiction of sexuality and sexual obsession. Carnovsky
, a thinly veiled reference to Roth's Portnoy's Complaint
, takes the form of a psychoanalysis session, in which the protagonist confesses to all sorts of things, including a sexual obsession with Jewish mothers. Zuckerman has not flourished in the aftermath of his success. He is divorced, slovenly dressed, and unhappy, in particular with the lack of privacy that fame has brought him. His agent complains, "What are you up to, anyway? …Are you trying to show them up in heaven and over at Commentary that you are only a humble, self-effacing yeshiva butcher and not the obstreperous author of such an indecent book?" One day, while eating in a deli, he is approached by Alvin Pepler, a quiz show contestant who has yet to move on from his previous fifteen minutes of fame. He claims to be a big fan of Zuckerman's work. When Zuckerman leaves the deli, Pepler tails him, talking incessantly; with considerable effort, Zuckerman loses him.
Later that day, Zuckerman is at home when he receives an anonymous phone call. The man on the line demands a large amount of money, threatening that if Zuckerman doesn't pay, he will kidnap his mother. Zuckerman doesn't believe the threat but is upset nonetheless. The threat causes him to reflect on the fact that his mother's neighbors think she was the inspiration for the maternal sexual fantasies of the protagonist of his book, although he has avowed that this is not the case. He then recalls the night, earlier that year, that he met Caesara O'Shea, a famous actor. They had bonded, sharing complaints about fame; before the night ended, they had become lovers. The next day, O'Shea didn't return Zuckerman's calls, and he found that she had returned to Cuba and into the arms of none other than Fidel Castro.
When Zuckerman receives another call from the anonymous caller, he is more shaken than before. He calls his agent for advice, and his agent advises him to call the police if he thinks the threat has any merit; he also reminds him that with his newfound wealth, there are all sorts of ways he can insulate himself from the outside world, which Zuckerman resists. Zuckerman chooses not to call the police, afraid of the impact it would have on his mother and her privacy. Later, Pepler approaches him again, entertaining Zuckerman with a display of game show trivia. Pepler segues the conversation into a review he is writing about Zuckerman's book. He asks for Zuckerman's feedback on the review; Zuckerman, who doesn't think the review is very good, gives his opinion honestly. Pepler is incensed, and Zuckerman flees the scene. He suspects, not for the first time, that the anonymous caller is Pepler. Zuckerman tries to find his ex-wife, Laura, but she isn't at home; her neighbor Rosemary is, however, and she confronts Zuckerman about having based a character in his book on Laura. Zuckerman denies the assertion, and, defeated, retreats again.
Zuckerman then receives a call informing him that his father has had a heart attack and is at death's door. Zuckerman flies to Miami immediately to see him, finding him semi-unconscious in his hospital bed. He tries to have a conversation with his father, discussing the universe. His father's last gasped words, barely intelligible, seem to be “bastard.” After attending his father's funeral, Zuckerman flies to Newark with his brother, who accuses him of killing their father with his shocking book, Carnovsky
, which his brother, too, feels was based on people from Zuckerman's real life. Zuckerman returns to his childhood neighborhood and wanders about aimlessly, feeling completely isolated from both his former and current lives.
Like many of Roth's works, especially those featuring Nathan Zuckerman, there is a metafictional quality to the novel that often takes center stage. Not only does Zuckerman Unbound
refer continually to Roth's previous work Portnoy's Complaint
, it also refers to his own life, although in a way that only complicates the relationship between fact and fiction by highlighting the fact that popular works of fiction—and the meanings that audiences read into them—frequently take on vigorous lives of their own.