The Anatomy Lesson by Philip Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I find Philip Roth's "The Anatomy Lesson" (1983), the third novel in the Zuckerman trilogy, rather unfocused and uneven. The book contains spellbinding passages but also some unbearably boring ones. I loved "Portnoy's Complaint", which I read over 40 years ago, and I quite disliked Mr. Roth's "The Breast" ( reviewed here). This novel would place somewhere in between in my ranking.
Nathan Zuckerman is a 40-year-old author of four well-received novels. He is suffering from extreme pain in his arms, neck, and shoulders, and no medical treatment seems to be working. He has a number of women helping him with his everyday life and also ensuring that his sex life is thriving. Gloria, Jenny, Diana, Jaga (Yaga, really, as she is from Warsaw, Poland), and Ricky serve Zuckerman like the 1970s groupies did for famous rock band members.
It seems that for Mr. Roth the thread about Zuckerman's struggle with Milton Appel, his most vocal literary critic and archenemy, is crucial to the novel. Yet to me, it is way overdone, excessive, and just plain boring. On the other hand, Zuckerman's love for his deceased mother is truly felt, and that thread is deeply touching. The mother is a quiet hero: "Redressing historical grievances, righting intolerable wrongs, changing the tragic course of the Jewish history - all this she gladly left for her husband to accomplish during dinner. He made the noise and had the opinions, she contended herself with preparing their meal and feeding the children and enjoying, while it lasted, the harmonious family life."
Then there is the hilarious thread about the pornography business that Zuckerman is ostensibly in, and his conversations with Ricky about that business are priceless. "The Anatomy Lesson" contains so many stunning passages that I would need to write a four-page review to provide more samples. Just one example: "With Roget's Thesaurus under his head and Gloria sitting on his face, Zuckerman understood just how little one can depend upon human suffering to produce ennobling effects."
The spirit of early 1970s is portrayed well, with the sexual revolution and the Watergate affair in the background,. Can you imagine that people smoked joints on airplanes? Those were the days. Mr. Roth's prose conveys the feel of the city of Chicago well. Also, I like the title, which evokes the many doctors over Nicolaes Tulp's body in the magnificent Rembrandt's painting. Yet, while I love the individual scenes, I am unable to love the whole novel. It is way too disjoint, too self-referential, and too custom-made.
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