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?