Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Scariest Story I Ever Read/Spoiler Alert

For a while now, I've been trying to put together a story that starts: "The scariest story I ever read was 'Zuckerman Unbound' by Philip Roth". It's tough to do without making it quite obviously autobiographical (if I ever do put my Plan B into place, I might use it there, I suppose). That's because 'Zuckerman ...' isn't anything like a horror story. It's actually a tragicomedy about a Jewish writer who becomes famous for writing a novel full of sex and snide remarks about other Jews, and ends up being identified with the protagonist of his novel. Not something you'd normally consider scary, to be honest. Then again, I don't read scary stuff normally, so what do I know (come to think of it, I haven't even read any Stephen King).

What freaked me out were actually two big plot points, which seemed to reverberate with my own particular context at that time. [Note: I suppose this is the point where I go 'SPOILER ALERT!']. On the one hand, there was this side character in the story called Alvin Pepler, who is supposed to have been a big winner on the TV quiz shows that were prevalent in the 50's (before being convinced to throw a round by the producers in a similar plot to what was covered in the movie 'Quiz Show'). Roth portrays him as this gasbag living in his past, defined by what happened to him on TV but also trying to escape it (I hope you see where I'm going with this). I read the book in my first year of college, when my identity was still defined to an extent by the fact that I'd been on TV and won the BQC. It scared me then to think of the possibility that my one big life-defining moment might already be behind me at the age of 18.

The other big scary plot point, ['SPOILER ALERT 2!', if you will] was right at the end, when Zuckerman's father, who is dying, uses his last breath to abuse him for writing a book that basically brought shame to their respectable family and made fun of the community. This sounds almost maudlin the way I describe it here, and Roth obviously lays it all out better in the book, but it freaked me out even more. Back then I had pretensions to becoming a full-fledged writer at some point, and to have this whole potential future guilt-trip laid onto my sweet, family-comes-first Mallu Catholic soul was unexpected when I'd started reading the book. I knew I didn't have sufficient imagination to come up with an entire other world a la Tolkien, but I could see myself putting out a decent stream of snappy farces satirizing the world around me. The thought of someone, and that too someone close to me, taking it all personally hadn't occurred to me, until then. Honestly.

Of course, much water has passed under many bridges since the time I first read the book. For one, I'm now no longer known for being a good school quizzer and more for being an above average college one, among other things, so the ghost of Pepler doesn't haunt me so much. As I said, I've been meaning to write about the book for a while now, but lacking sufficient inspiration, I whacked it from my parents' home last time I visited and re-read the book on the flight back. I'm glad to say I found it a much more fun read this time, and not as scary. Then again, that could be because I'm growing old and giving in to convention anyway, so there's less likelihood of giving offence. Come to think of it, that's a scary thought too.

UPDATE: Added in links, and due attribution to Han. Also, if you're interested, here's a review of 'Zuckerman Unbound' from the NY Times. And finally, here's a list of 15 books that I like, which I put together because Han tagged me on Facebook.


  1. Ah, so we've been thinking along similar lines (down to the Tolkien line) for a while now.

    Snide comments and sex! You must share these stories (with names changed) over a beer at least. I'll be in India in December...

  2. Yeah that Tolkien line was a nod to you. I couldn't put in the link to your post because I typed this out on my phone. Will update later today.
    At 18 I guess I also overestimated how exciting my life would be. There's nowhere as much sex, for one thing :-) I'm sure you know more salacious gossip than I do.
    This post was supposed to be more about the book than my own writing. Roth wasn't very widely-read in College as far as I remember. He was probably too focused on the Jewish-American community for most, I guess.

  3. They say the second novel is the hardest to write because you've already used up all the autobiographical juice.

    Why not jump right in?

  4. And by that you mean what, exactly?

  5. Skip past the God of Small Things stage (but not into the Algebra of Infinite Justice stage). :)

    Btw, I just finished reading Sarnath Banerjee's The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. Quite cool, it was. If you do get around to writing that novel, make it graphic. A far more interesting medium that most Indian writing in English, me thinks.