“Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.”
The speaker of these unsettling words is Nathan Zuckerman, on page 63 of Philip Roth’s excellent novel American Pastoral (1998 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction). Like the author who fashioned him as an alter ego and carried him through nine variously autobiographical narratives beginning with 1979’s The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman is an aging, ribald fiction writer with prostate trouble, living in the Berkshires and thinking more and more frequently about mortality. Lately he feels like “a biography in perpetual motion, memory to the marrow of my bones.” When he speaks the epigraph I’ve begun with, he’s at his forty-fifth high-school reunion, responding to a retired surgeon who has said, “The operating room turns you into somebody who’s never wrong. Much like writing.”
The last time the calendar called for me to post on this blog, I wrote about being almost finished with my novel. Two or three times in a row before that, I wrote about being almost finished with it. My wrongness about the completion date stemmed from wrongness about what was in the text, namely a misunderstanding of the size of the chasm between the story on the page and the story in my head.
I’ve come to think of this task as the most difficult a novelist faces: perceiving the shape and scale of the gulf between the text and the idea. The feat of perception is simultaneously mathematical and psychological, and requires an understanding of real and abstract geometries as well as one’s own emotional shortcomings. The story in one’s head transpires in a subjective reality varnished by the exaggerations and delusions tossed up by the ego to soothe the spirit. The story on the page, no matter how subjective the dream it pulls us into, transpires in unvarnished objective reality.
It takes humility to be wrong so many times a day for one’s entire career. Sometimes Nathan Zuckerman lacks that humility, which lets him do dramatically interesting things like convince himself the graduate student staying upstairs from him at a famous writer’s home could be Anne Frank, living incognito in late-1950s New England. Roth has it, though, which is why he wrote about Zuckerman rather than himself. Getting things right, relying on one’s unfailing mind for decade upon decade, isn’t so dramatically interesting.
Now back to my novel. I’ll be finished in a few weeks.