The Storyteller as Sadist (or Zuckerman’s Complaint)

David Mura

May 04, 2015

        If in the world of our stories, we as authors resemble God, it is because we visit trials and tribulations upon our protagonists, while we sit removed from their world, watching them suffer, investigating their suffering, rendering their suffering.  In short, we treat them the way God treated Job:  We test their patience and their fortitude; we foil their hopes and plans; we place before them obstacles, opponents to thwart them, false comforters and flatterers, betrayers; we create for them conflicts, impossible and debilitating situations, irreconcilable dilemmas; we teach them that they are mortal and fallible, that those they love or admire are mortal and fallible; we not only watch them fail, we provide them with the means and opportunities to fail; we hammer at their pride and illusions, their achievements and beliefs; we strip them to the bone, reveal their poor and wretched and naked selves, their animal hungers and wants; we take them into despair and desperation; we deny them their desires and sit back and watch how they howl in complaint, how they choose to proceed; we bring them to the point of giving up and see if they will do so.  And in doing all this, in setting up their world of suffering and torment, of frustration and failure, we watch them respond to that world and create their fate.           

        In The Facts: A Novelist’s Autbiography, Philip Roth makes a key distinction between the autobiographical facts of one’s life and what a novelist does with those facts. 
        The main section of The Facts is a memoir which provides an account of Roth’s early life.  In the preface, though, Roth writes a letter to his fictional alter-ego, the author Nathan Zuckerman, who shares certain biographical resemblances to his creator, and in this preface, he asks Zuckerman’s opinion about the memoir. 
        At the end of the memoir, in a nicely postmodern move, Zuckerman writes a letter back to Roth, advising him not to publish the work.  Zuckerman argues that we judge the author of a novel differently than that of an autobiographer; the autobiographer is judged by an ethical imperative—to tell the truth—whereas the novelist is judged by an aesthetic imperative—to tell a story well.  In autobiography, the question is:  

How close is the narration to the truth?  Is the author hiding his or her motives, presenting his or her actions and thoughts to lay bare the essential nature of conditions or trying to hide something, telling in order not to tell?  In a way we always tell in order not to tell, but the personal historical is expected to resist to the utmost the ordinary impulse to falsify, distort, and deny? 

Zuckerman questions whether Roth is actually accomplishing this task of the autobiographer, and he wonders if Roth hasn’t painted a far more benign and uncomplicated portrait not just of himself, but of the other people he writes about--his parents, his ex-lovers and ex-wife. 

        In this fictional letter, Zuckerman then argues that Roth’s real talent is not for “separating the facts from the imagination and emptying them of their potential dramatic energy.”   Instead, Roth’s talent as a fiction writer involves infusing the facts with his imagination, willfully distorting the facts, inventing scenarios and alternative events, ratcheting up the emotional stakes, investigating the lies and falsifications people create of themselves and others and their past.  In short, Roth as a memoirist or autobiographer isn’t writing to his strengths; the results show it:  

….why suppress the imagination that’s served you so long?  Doing so entails terrific discipline, I know, but why bother?  Especially when to strip away the imagination to get to a fiction’s factual basis is frequently all that many readers really care about?  Why is it that when they talk about the facts they feel they’re on more solid ground than when they talk about fiction?  The truth is that the facts are much more refractory and unmanageable and inconclusive, and can actually kill the very sort of inquiry that imagination opens up.  Your work has always been to intertwine the facts with the imagination, but here you’re unintertwining them, you’re pulling them apart, you’re peeling the skin off your imagination, de-imagining a life’s work, and what is left even they can now understand.  

Zuckerman criticizes readers who mistake the true nature and purpose of fiction, who mistake its purpose for that of autobiography, which is rendering the facts.  Zuckerman argues that such a rendering is a form of deception, of holding back; it doesn’t get at the true complications and contradictions of our existence, and that is why we resort to and need the creation of fiction, of story.  Story provides us with the metaphor to explore our existence in a way that is not literal and therefore reductive.  It allows the imagination—i.e., the unconscious—a means of entrance, and in so doing, belies the limitation of our conscious mind’s understanding and adherence to the facts. 
        According to Zuckerman, one of the reasons fiction or stories can do this is that they by-pass the various censors both within us and without.  Thus Zuckerman tells Roth that his portrait of his parents is too pious and respectful and leaves something essential out: 

In the few comments you do make about your mother and father, there’s nothing but tenderness, respect, understanding, all those wonderful emotions that I, for one, have come to distrust partly because you, for one, have made me distrust them.  Many people don’t like you as a writer just because of the ways you invited the reader to distrust those very sentiments that you now public embrace….Look, this place you come from does not produce artists so much as it produces dentists and accountants.  I’m convinced that there is something in the romance of your childhood that you’re not permitting yourself to talk about, though without it the rest of the book makes no sense.  I just cannot trust you as a memoirist the way I trust you as a novelists because, as I’ve said, to tell what you tell best is forbidden to you here by a decorous, citizenly, filial conscious.  With this book you’ve tied your hands behind your back and tried to write it with your toes.           

Zuckerman argues here that fiction allows the author a freer space, a dimension in which the blasphemous and outrageous, the forbidden and denied, the ugly and upsetting, are allowed not simply entrance but free rein.  Fiction provides license; autobiography provides shackles—whether those shackles come from outside the writer or within. 
            Zuckerman also recognizes here that his author, Roth, provides him not just with attitudes or emotions or beliefs that Roth the autobiographer tends to shy away from.  No, Roth the author provides Zuckerman with difficulties and trials that Roth, if we are to believe his autobiography, has been relative free from.  Where Roth’s parents seemingly supported and approved for the most part Roth’s career as a writer and the work he’s produced, Zuckerman has suffered an irreconcilable breach from his father because of his writing.  In an ironic and comic complaint, Zuckerman chastises Roth for a lack of sympathy for the troubles Roth has visited upon him:  

I wonder if you have any real idea of what it’s like to be disowned by a dying father because of something you write.  I assure you that there is no equivalence between that and a hundred nights on the rack at Yeshiva.  My father’s condemnation of me provided you, obviously, with the opportunity to pull out all the stops on a Jewish deathbed scene; that had to have been irresistible to a temperament like yours.  Nonetheless, knowing what I now do about your father’s enthusiasm for your first stories and about the pride he took in their publication, I feel, whether inappropriately or not, envious, cheated, and misused…. 

Zuckerman reacts here as if he were Roth’s Job, but with a more critical and perhaps more human response than his biblical counterpart.  I have suffered, says Zuckerman, in order to provide you with fictional opportunities, with venues for your explorations.  For your profit and livelihood; perhaps even for your amusement.  And it all could have been avoided. 
            But of course, if Roth had kept Zuckerman from his troubles and suffering, Roth would never have written his works of fiction.  Nevertheless, Zuckerman helps us recognize a certain sadism in the role of the fiction writer.  And it’s not just Zuckerman who bemoans this sadism.  Zuckerman’s fictional British wife, Maria, also reads Roth’s manuscript.  She complains that Roth has both given her an anti-Semitic mother and intruded that mother far more deeply into their marriage than she would have wished.  Indeed, Maria wishes for a life that’s sane, “uninteresting, unimportant.”  But Roth has provided neither her nor husband with such a life, and she fears there are signs that he will soon visit more troubles upon them:  “To have spent all of this evening reading this book—and now I feel so defenseless against what I just know is coming!”  To which Zuckerman then adds:  

Is Maria right?  What is coming?  Why, in her England, have I been given this close-cropped, wirebrush, gray-speckled beard?....How can we really believe that this beard means nothing when you, who have rabbinically beard me, appear in even just your first few pages to be more preoccupied than ever in your life with the gulf between gentile and Jew?  Must this, my fourth marriage, be torn apart because you, in middle age, have discovered in yourself a passion to be reconciled with the tribe?  Why should your relentless assessing of Jewish predicaments be our cross to bear! 

            Despite their complains, the fictional Maria and Zuckerman never quite plead with their creator to let them off the hook, to treat them and their lives more gently (note the last sentence ends not with a question mark but an exclamation point).  They both know it is not in the nature of the beast.  Roth is a fiction writer, and this is what fiction writers do:  They make their characters suffer.