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Philip Roth—Countertexts, Counterlives

Debra Shostak

A wide-ranging examination of Roth's dialogic explorations of subjectivity

"I think of my life as one long speech that I've been listening to… how to think, how not to think; how to behave, how not to behave;… the book of my life is a book of voices," reflects Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's alter ego, in I Married a Communist. Looking at Roth's writing life as a "book of voices," Debra Shostak listens in on the conversations that this prominent American novelist has conducted with himself and his times over forty years and twenty-four books. She finds that while Roth frequently shifts perspectives, he repeatedly returns to interrelated questions of cultural history, literary history, and, especially, selfhood. Arguing that Roth's method of composition, like his conception of self, is fundamentally dialogical, Shostak follows the writer from his depictions of embodied, ethnically determined selves to his exploration of indeterminate selves revealed in the public spaces of confession and historical trauma.

Shostak demonstrates that for Roth no perspective gains ascendancy over another, nor does he work the various viewpoints toward a synthesis. Instead, his countertexts simply "talk" to one another. For this reason Shostak does not treat Roth's canon chronologically but pursues a complex thematic investigation of the concerns that preoccupy Roth: masculinity, embodiment, male sexuality, Jewish American identity, the pressures of recent American history on the self, and storytelling as an act of both fictive imagination and quasi-autobiographical disclosure. She arranges the study to enable the reader to understand how the individual fictions and memoirs intersect and cohere and where they depart from and disrupt one another.

In addition to offering fresh, informed readings of Roth's work, Shostak provides new insights from the virtually untapped archives of the Philip Roth Collection at the Library of Congress.

Debra Shostak is a professor of English at the College of Wooster, where she teaches American literature and film. Her essays have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Twentieth Century Literature, Critique, Shofar, and Arizona Quarterly, as well as in several edited collections. Shostak lives in Wooster, Ohio.

"Debra Shostak's study of Philip Roth is very simply one of the best books on Roth that has appeared in the last decade. Persuasively and without the jargon that in recent years seems to have dictated literary studies, Shostak draws our attentions to the ironic nuances that control the unfolding of the drama that is Philip Roth. Shostak reinvigorates Roth scholarship by dismantling what are by now, surely, the tired categories of American and Jew. Indeed, Shostak, like Roth himself, resists such categorical imperatives of American and Jew for the far more interesting and dangerous terrain of self and other, of the histories and ideologies that form and frame the idea of selfhood and that are resisted even as they are embraced by Roth's characters."—Victoria Aarons, Department of English, Trinity University, and author of A Measure of Memory: Storytelling and Identity in American Jewish Fiction

"Debra Shostak's thoroughly researched, fully documented, and lively written book brings to the study of Philip Roth a fresh perspective. Using manuscript materials as well as close readings, Shostak adapts Roth's concept of 'counterlives' to present his fiction as a number of 'countertexts.' It's the first analysis of this kind I know, and it works wonderfully well."—Jay Halio, Department of English, University of Delaware



book jacket for Philip Roth— Countertexts, Counterlives


6 x 9
352 pages
ISBN 978-1-57003-542-5
cloth, $39.95s


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