The Counterlife

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The Counterlife
First edition cover
Author Philip Roth
Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
Pages 324 pp
ISBN 978-0-374-13026-8
OCLC 13904280
LC Class PS3568.O855 C6 1986

The Counterlife (1986) is a novel by the American author Philip Roth. It is the fourth full novel to feature the fictional novelist Nathan Zuckerman. When The Counterlife was published, Zuckerman had most recently appeared in a novella called The Prague Orgy, the epilogue to the omnibus volume Zuckerman Bound. It is reported that French director Arnaud Desplechin is working on a screen adaptation of the novel.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel opens with what appears to be an entry in Zuckerman's journal about his younger brother Henry. Henry is a forty-year-old dentist with a wife and kids. He has opted for the safety of a traditional profession and family life in contrast to Nathan, the famous writer with whom Henry clashes throughout the Zuckerman novels.

Henry has been diagnosed with advanced obstructive arterial disease. His medical prognosis leaves him with two options. He can either go on medication that will halt the progress of the blockage and save his life but leave him sexually impotent or he can opt for radical bypass surgery in a bid to preserve sexual function. His doctors urge Henry to accept the medication and to try to face life without sex. His decision is complicated by the prospect of ending an extramarital affair with an assistant named Wendy.

Though the Zuckerman brothers have been feuding in the years since their parents died, Henry seeks reconciliation with Nathan and asks his advice.


The five sections of the novel each contradict each other to some extent, so certain events that have taken place in one section are presupposed not to have taken place in subsequent sections.

On one level, this can be read as a comment on the craft of writing. It reflects the way in which the author has many germs of ideas, not all of which reach the complete fruition of becoming a coherent work of fiction.

At a deeper level, it reflects the fragmentation of human lives. To an extent, all of us live counterlives, as we do things that do not fit in with the 'official story' of the kind of person we are, and the kind of life we are living.


Roth was awarded the 1987 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. He was also a finalist that year for the National Book Award.

In 2012 Martin Amis described it as a "masterpiece of postmodern fiction ... a really very impressively intricate book."[1]

Other editions[edit]

This book is included in the fifth volume of Philip Roth's collected works Novels and Other Narratives 1986–1991, published by the Library of America.