My Life as a Man – Philip Roth
When Peter Tarnopol learns that Maureen has died, he is convinced that it’s another plot of hers, a set-up to get him to react callously, and so recorded in his coldness that the alimony judge will slap him with ever greater support obligations, and that he will never never be able to extricate himself from this hell Maureen has created for the two of them.
For the two of them, I say, but this torment does not begin or end with her, though Peter Tarnopol is uniquely wracked by it. My Life as a Man is dominated by the Herculean struggle of this evil little relationship.
Tarnopol is a good Jewish boy from Yonkers, raised right by his father, with the hours in the storeroom, the well provided for upbringing with its attendant unobserved ups and downs in fortune by the stolid Jewish father who loves, loves his boy, and this boy is brilliant enough and devoted to the Word (of literature, not religion) to earn himself a promising future as a brilliant young man of letters, with the early publication of a novel (it is titled A Jewish Father).
But he gets trapped with Maureen, a woman four years his senior, 29 at first, and she is mad, nutso, just out of it and she traps him. They scream and shout at one another and Tarnopol is not living life as a man, he is emasculated, and throughout the whole sorry narrative, even after Maureen’s death, which ends the novel differently from how it was presented earlier, has he ever even become a man?
Throughout the book he cries and he sobs and he unleashes torrents of thoughts and words and digressions and ruminations upon the reader and his psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel, but it’s never clarified so clearly as it is in the two short stories that front the text.
We jump into them unaware that they aren’t the main narrative, and they tell a similar sort of story. The first of an industrious young Jewish boy from a good family with a good mind, who eventually meets a hot Jewish girl by the name of Sharon Shatsky, three years his junior and we are treated to Rothian descriptions of carnality and obscenity that are both entertaining and appealing. Memorably, Shatsky strips for this Nathan Zuckerman and penetrates herself with a cucumber, along with a litany of other torrid sex acts performed in very near view of their happy parents oblivious to the buggering and jamming and slamming going on near them.
This Zuckerman story is followed by a more subdued and solemn tale with a character that more closely resembles the Maureen that follows in the next two hundred pages. This Zuckerman falls for Lydia, an older woman in the creative writing course he teaches, a woman who has been through terrible travail in her life. She was raped (the word used to describe it here is ‘seduction’) by her father as a child, and Zuckerman is attracted to her writing and her, and tries to bring her to orgasm despite her dessicated genitals and her insecure disbelief in his attraction to her.
Maureen too comes from a harder background, one husband a woman beating brute and the other an actor homosexual (the book from 1970 of course so this, the horror and shame!). And she will not let Peter Tarnopol out of her grasp long after their hate has burned high and hard and desperately terribly like a bonfire of, not vanities no, but jealousies and grudges and sheer raving madness!
She tricks him into marriage through a faked pregnancy that she falsely verifies for Tarnopol by buying urine from a pregnant woman. And she forces him too by threatening to kill herself if he leaves. And she is petty and terribly jealous and distrustful of Tarnopol in any of the classes he teaches, of the girls oh the girls! The luscious undergrads who Tarnopol is just bursting with desire to seduce. And then he does of course, miserable and degraded by Maureen.
Does Tarnopol’s perspective blind us to some goodness in Maureen? Is she treated unfairly? Perhaps, but there’s no textual evidence to indicate this to the reader at all. She comes off unbearably vindictive and possessive. She will not allow a divorce, she is desperate to possess him always and forever. Why, she loves him but it’s a wild acquisitory love that will not let him, or her, escape from the toxic sludge that the husband and wife are bathing in.
During Tarnopol’s separation from Maureen, there is also Susan, a kind gentle lover of his, with a similarly broken past, a widow who inherited $2 million after a plane crash claims her young husband, and a timid girl who Peter boosts up and seems to enjoy. The narrative jumps around of course, and the Peter who is writing this account is a Peter who is no longer with Susan. She too attempted suicide after he left her, before trying to win him back broken in a white bikini. He left her because he knew she wanted children and to marry, things that he doesn’t want, and so he does not want to make her unhappy.
This is a Philip Roth novel, of course it is brilliant. The refracted frenetic prose brimming with introspection and thought upon thought upon thought creates an accretion of lively inquiry. The emotional content is compelling, the melodrama that Tarnopol ironically is aware of in his life of literary pretensions is impeccably presented. There is a sort of driving quality which is present in so much of Roth’s early work, oars pulling against the water and the slaves rowing propelling the novel forward forward forward to a buzzing conclusion.
The sexual detail is inventive and funny, the dialogue real, the people all too very real, the rendering of the divorce proceedings granular but rapid.
Roth makes it look so easy but to think, really think like his characters do is a remarkable achievement. They are so vibrantly cerebral that as you read the words your brain pulses with the sensation of the introspection, as if this first person rendering you are reading is actually the thoughts racing through your own brain.
The act of writing the book for Tarnopol means something about his terrible relationship, which with the immediacy with which it’s presented means that he has neither forgotten it nor let it go. It is a terrible terrible relationship, the type of setup that haunts every thinking or trying to love person like a nightmare. The most terrifying part is how completely its characters are trapped in it, however much they know and however early on that they are completely and utterly within its malignant grasp.