THE FACTS: A Novelist's Autobiography is primarily the autobiography of Philip Roth, which is written as a letter from Roth to Nathan Zuckerman, a character or narrator of many of Roth's novels. This novelist's autobiography, published in 1988, presents Roth's experiences up to the publication of PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, which published in 1969 when Roth was 36 years old. For Roth, this novel was a breakthrough, since it was a "...high-spirited moment when the manic side of my imagination took off and I became my own writer..."
In the start of this letter, Roth explains to Zuckerman why he has decided to write an autobiography. In brief, Roth suffered from "fiction fatigue." In order to restart his engine, he decided to write an autobiography, since... "For me, as for most novelists, every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the facts, with the specific, and not the philosophical, the ideological, the abstract." In this way, he intends to "...get back to the original well, not for material but for the launch, the relaunch--out of fuel, back to tank up on the magic blood."
Most of THE FACTS (the prologue and five of its six chapters) reads as a very interesting writer's autobiography, with Roth exploring the dynamics of his childhood and family, his experiences in college, the development of his relationship with his difficult shiksa wife, their separation, the publication of the transformative PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, and his wife's death in an automobile accident. While there are many threads in this narrative, one certainly shows Roth "freeing" himself, not from "...my Jewishness or from my family..." but from "...an apprentice's literary models, particularly from the awesome graduate-school authority of Henry James, whose PORTRAIT OF A LADY had been a virtual handbook during the early drafts of LETTING GO." The bulk of THE FACTS ends with Roth "... determined to be an absolutely independent, self-sufficient man..."
In response to this autobiography, the character Nathan Zuckerman writes a return letter (and final chapter in THE FACTS) to Roth, which criticizes the autobiography. At the time THE FACTS published, Roth's most recent novel was the impressive THE COUNTERLIFE, which placed Zuckerman in a tense marriage with the upper-crust and very English Maria. In this return letter, Zuckerman calls autobiography the "most manipulative" literary form, due, in part, to its self-censorship. Further, he says that he trusts Roth more as a novelist than an autobiographer, since "your separating the facts from the imagination empties them of their potential dramatic energy." Then, Zuckerman proceeds to cast doubt on all aspects of Roth's autobiography, especially his portrayal of his mother, his wife, and May, his current girlfriend. Roth, in other words, uses the character Zuckerman to explore the shortcoming of this particular autobiography and this literary form.
In the prologue, Roth says he wrote THE FACTS to restart his fictional engine. This, he achieves at the very end of this book, when Maria reads Roth's letter to Zuckerman and then begins to express criticism of her husband, and then Roth, for deliberately creating tension and struggle in their fictional marriage, since this feeds both her husband's and Roth's work. At this point, the rejuvenated Roth has brought his readers back into his imaginary realm, where, as the cliché says, the characters have taken over the narrative. Roth has restarted his engine.
To its readers, THE FACTS bestows insights about the sources of Roth's early work, interesting criticism of autobiography, and a clever structure, which apparently helped Roth to write his way out of a slump. Recommended.