The novel was published in 1986. It has five sections, entitled "Basel," "Judea," "Aloft," "Gloucestershire," and "Christendom."
In the first section of The Counterlife, the narrator, a novelist, writes about his brother, a dentist. In the second section, something that happened in the first section has been undone. In other words: the narrator is the same narrator and the brother is the same brother, but the reality of the novel's second section proceeds from a possibility that did not occur in the first section. Roth declines to surround this shift with any particular narrative frenetics: there is no time travel or other physical explanation for the shift; it is not treated by the author as a shocking or rebellious move of wild postmodernity; and it does not particularly undermine the novel's "realism." One simply begins reading the second section of the novel and, eight pages in, realizes that something that occurred in the first section now did not occur.
Each succeeding section of the novel proceeds accordingly: decisions or events that occurred in previous sections are changed or undone. The reader quickly recognizes this--the shifts are not intended to be mystifying or confusing. The novel proceeds.
Because the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is a novelist, thoughts on the construction of fiction occur and are spoken about by Zuckerman and the characters. After Zuckerman visits Mordecai Lippman, a militant Jew living on a settlement in Judea, whom Zuckerman's brother has left his family to follow, an Israeli friend writes to Zuckerman:
What worries me is that what you will see in Lippman and his cohorts is an irresistible Jewish circus, a great show, and that what is morally inspiring to one misguided Zuckerman boy will be richly entertaining to the other, a writer with a strong proclivity for exploring serious, even grave, subjects through their comical possibilities. What makes you a normal Jew, Nathan, is how you are riveted by Jewish abnormality.
The reader's response to these lines, of course, is to think: But the fact that I just read about Lippman in this novel means that Zuckerman did, indeed, turn Lippman into a character in a novel...or, no, wait: Roth used a character named Lippman as a character in a novel in exactly the way Zuckerman's friend seems to be hoping to pre-empt, though he is hoping to pre-empt Zuckerman from writing about Lippman.
Reviews of the novel at the time seem to have focused on its "metafictional" aspects, which made some reviewers grumpy. It strikes this reader, though, as pointless to be grumpy about "metafiction" in a novel in which one of the characters is a novelist. (We're putting "metafiction" in quotes because there are about five hundred flavors of it--even so-called "regular" fiction writing has "metafictional" qualities, if you're looking for them.) If reviewers dislike this, then they are essentially outlawing novelists from using writers as characters in novels. According to this view, we can have dentists as characters, for instance, or characters who possess any other profession in the world, but characters simply cannot be writers.
This seems arbitrary and silly. It is also seems small-minded to want to limit the terrain a writer covers, or to outlaw him from pursuing particular novelistic possibilities. So we dismiss these old reviews out of hand. Including yours, John Updike.
What was particularly impressive to this reader was the degree to which the shifts in reality and reflections-upon-writing in The Counterlife did not lessen the effects of the novel's realism. Roth's characters are vivid, their situations specific. He allows them to speak: when upset, his characters sometimes speak for pages. He allows them equality: the characters are intelligent, and when arguing, characters on opposing sides of arguments--whether those arguments are political or emotional--each make compelling points. He allows them honesty: his characters are frank about sex, about their most conflicted feelings, about the things they have done and why they have done them. And in this novel, he allows them the particular reflectivity built into a novel that features a novelist as the narrator: they discuss, quite naturally, the degree to which perhaps the narrator and main character, Nathan Zuckerman, likes to get himself into arguments and conflicts primarily because he thinks they will make for good source material for his fiction writing. Zuckerman responds to these thoughts. The novel proceeds.
There is a section in which an italicized voice simply asks questions to one of the characters. She responds as well as she can. We are not "grounded in scene," but because these voices are personal, and the questions are about a relationship we have read about in the novel--and probably because there is a tremendous amount of talking in this novel, in general--the section does not play particularly differently from others. One does not have a sense that we are somehow, now, "outside" of the novel. Two voices are talking. We know to whom the voices belong. We are still "in" the novel.
This novel consists primarily--as may already be clear--of scenes in which two people discuss something. Who the two people are, and what is being discussed, changes. The scenes, however, at all times possess an urgency and sharpness which this reader found impressive and enjoyable. Philip Roth, of course, is famous. But it is nice to be able to say that consistently, when reading him, one thinks: and he merits this fame. The Counterlife, at least, is excellent.