Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer is a book working on several levels. On its most surface level, there is humor. On another, a bit deeper, there is a simple tale of ambition and personal journey with predictable ups and downs and tangents and all the trappings of traditional “story”. And on yet another, there is real tragedy and brokenness.


It’s a short little book, and not at all straightforward. It starts out innocuous enough, negotiates a few careful twists and turns and then suddenly takes a hard left into an unfamiliar and thrilling metafictional neighborhood. I wasn’t expecting this. It turned the book into something completely different. Something completely interesting.


So here are the two stories: Story one – fledging writer Nathan Zuckerman spends the night at the home of his literary idol, a man named E. I. Lonoff. They talk literature, love and writing. Zuckerman meets Lonoff’s wife and his assistant (i.e. his mistress) whom Zuckerman is extremely attracted to. Story two – Lonoff’s assistant, a woman named Amy Bellette, is actually Anne Frank.


Story two is Zuckerman’s brilliant invention. In my opinion it is the absolute best part of the entire novel. I actually wish it were the entire novel. Yes, I know, I know, metafiction has another purpose. And in The Ghost Writer I think Roth uses his metafictional element to the benefit of Zuckerman’s Jewish identity crisis – which is quite interesting in its own right. I just think he asks the same questions from a much more fascinating perspective in the Amy Belette/Anne Frank story. Put another way, story one is not much without story two, but story two rewrites history and asks some phenomenal questions in just a few pages and all on its own.


I haven’t yet read enough Roth to really understand all that he’s exploring in the whole Nathan Zuckerman-as-Roth-alter-ego thing. I get the sense that his exploration of the writer’s pysche is as important to him as the story he has his writer telling. In The Ghost Writer, the idea that he is a Jewish writer is very important. In fact, his being Jewish is really the central question of his role as a writer. (And I believe this is Roth’s fundamental preoccupation in all his novels).


Although I do somewhat wish the Amy Bellette/Anne Frank story could have stood on it’s own without any connection to Nathan Zuckerman, I did love the idea of Zuckerman inventing this fiction while snooping through his hero’s desk in the middle of the night. This is such an exquisite example of how a writer’s imagination can work. He meets a person who intrigues him, someone whom he really knows nothing about and then blithely invents her entire life. Early in the novel, Roth makes it clear that Zuckerman relies heavily on autobiography in his own writing. So everything Zuckerman comes in contact with is a potential narrative. This all winds back around then to the idea of writerly responsibility and what Zuckerman owes his culture and society.


For some reason I have always been wary of Roth’s work and I put off reading him for quite some time. I read a lot of male writers so I’m not sure what about Roth made me think he was a MALE writer but this is the impression I had. I read Everyman a few months ago and it didn’t do much to rewrite my initial expectations. And even after finishing this second book, I’m not sure I will ever find an easy port of access into Roth’s particular project, but The Ghost Writer asked some interesting questions, poked a bit of fun at writerly pretensions and at the same time took itself very very seriously. I see more Roth on my horizon – any suggestions? Anyone have a favorite?



10 Responses to “Philip Roth – The Ghost Writer”

  1. Amateur Reader

    Righgt on the money. I don’t have a suggestion – the audacious Anne Frank fantasy in this one is my favorite Roth.

    There’s always more Zuckerman. At the rate Roth has been writing, there will always be more Zuckerman.

  2. Logophile

    Excellent post – I agree that story two is definitely the best part. I’ve only read this and Portnoy’s Complaint (which I really liked though it’s been a long time since I read it). I’ve just mooched The Human Stain so some more Roth/Zuckerman is appearing over the horizon.

  3. CB James

    There was a decent made for public television movie of this book back in the 70’s. I’ll have to read the book, now.

    I recommend Portnoy’s Complaint. Very funny book.

    I found The Plot Against America difficult to put down, myself.

    My book club and I did not like I Married a Communist.

  4. Leah

    You have been tagged with the ‘7 random facts: book edition’ tag. Come over to The Octogon to get your instructions 🙂

  5. litlove

    Wonderful post that made me want to run out and buy a copy of The Ghost Writer immediately. I read The Human Stain and adored it. So I would certainly recommend that one.

  6. Dorothy W.

    I just read a David Foster Wallace essay on Updike where he discusses the “Great Male Narcissists” including Updike, Mailer, and Roth. So I can see why you might think of Roth as a MALE writer! I suppose I have a decent tolerance for the GMNs, as Wallace calls them, and I enjoyed Portnoy’s Complaint and also American Pastoral. The latter is another Zuckerman novel, but Portnoy’s Complain is something else entirely.

  7. Smithereens

    I loved the American Pastoral and the Plot against America. I had some misconceptions about Roth too and overcame them, but I still have some difficulties with Zuckerman. Those 2 aren’t Zuckerman novels at any rate.

  8. verbivore

    Amateur Reader – I will have a go with more Zuckerman and then I will try and get a copy of the article Dorothy mentions, that should be interesting.

    Logophile – Will definitely have to get my hands on The Human Stain and Portnoy’s Complaint. I’ll feel more comfortable writing about Roth when I’ve read more of him.

    CB – thanks for the suggestions. I’m getting a good list of where to start with him.

    Leah – thank you! Will have a peak in just a moment!

    Litlove – I remember you mentioning The Human Stain so that one is most definitely already on my list.

    Dorothy – I am going to have to get my hands on that essay. Where did you read it?

    Smithereens – His Zuckerman novels are interesting to me, unless it is pure narcissism (which is what Updike might be saying in the article Dorothy mentioned). Otherwise I’ll see about his other novels – thank you!

  9. Dorothy W.

    The essay is almost entirely on Updike, not on Roth, but it’s in Wallace’s collection of essays Consider the Lobster.

  10. verbivore

    Thanks Dorothy – duly noted, I’ve been wanting to read his essays anyway so perfect timing!

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