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Zuckerman Sold

If Philip Roth sold his characters to Disney

Yoni Brenner
February 21, 2013
(Photo by AP; Microsoft Paint Mouse Ears by Adam Chandler )
(Photo by AP; Microsoft Paint Mouse Ears by Adam Chandler )

Philip Roth is calling it a career..In an interview with a French publication called Les Inrocks last month … Roth, 78, said he has not written anything new in the last three years, and that he will not write another novel.


The Walt Disney Company…[has] agreed to acquire Lucasfilm from its founder, George Lucas, for $4.05 billion in stock and cash…

–The Times


The truth was, I didn’t like the Magic Kingdom and I never would.

For the past eleven years I had lived in a small but serviceable cabin in the Berkshires. There, in the silence of the New England woods, I could read and write in peace and accept my steadily advancing decrepitude—impotence, incontinence, rheumatism, the erosion of sexual desire—not quite with dignity (for the wayward bladder bridges no dignity), but something approaching equanimity.

But it was all to change on a brisk morning just after Thanksgiving when I received a phone call from Jerry Levov, who informed me that I had been sold to Disney.

“I don’t understand,” I stammered. “What would they want with me?”

“Not just you, Nathan, everybody: me, Kepesh, Axler, Sabbath, Coleman Silk, Portnoy—even the Monkey!”

I was dizzy. “Are you sure this isn’t some sort of meta-fictional exercise? Like Operation Shylock—or The Counterlife?”

Jerry clucked his tongue. “I had my accountant look into it. That kind of stunt might fool the critics, but not the SEC. They say Iger has been circling the Roth universe for years. Once Marvel and Lucasfilm were in the bag it was only a matter of time.”

And so, less than a month later, there I was, Nathan Zuckerman, a man of 78, the author of Carnovsky and more than thirty other acclaimed works of fiction, patrolling Main Street U.S.A. with Goofy and Darth Vader, handing out towels at ‘Typhoon Lagoon’ and doubling back to Fantasyland at three times a day to sing ‘It’s a Small World After All.’ It was demanding work. The children were loud and relentless and their appetite for piggy-back rides was seemingly insatiable. And although I had hoped to establish a camaraderie with the more senior mascots, Mickey was cold, and Goofy was cruel and Darth Vader seemed always distracted, and when talking to him one had the distinct feeling that he was peering over your shoulder, looking for someone more interesting to talk to.

“What movie are you from?” the boy said, tugging on the leg of my corduroy trousers. He was squat and moonfaced, no more than five years old, and his chin was crusted with dried ice cream.

“I’m not from any movie. I’m a literary character.”

“Do you know songs?”

“If you like I could hum selections from Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. Many find his application of twelve-tone technique inaccessible at first, but I think you’ll find it has a complex, haunting beauty.”

The boy stared at me, perplexed, his lower lip quivering like a frightened grub. Just then, a stout, broad hipped woman in white shorts and a Club Mickey visor swooped in and spirited him away.
“Don’t you talk to that man!” she snapped, “He’ll just use it for his art.”

I watched as they hurried away, and when I turned around I saw that Goofy was rubbing his temples and Darth Vader was shaking his head in mortified disbelief.

“Seriously, man, you’ve got to stop doing that,” Goofy said, “you’re killing the mood.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Next time just tell him you’re the Genie from ‘Aladdin.’”

“Alright,” I said. “Next time.”

While the rest of the mascots were on their lunch break I descended to the underground, unisex locker room to take my pills and to coax my capricious bladder into action. It was not until I had capitulated and re-buttoned my trousers that I was interrupted by a high and impossibly melodious voice.

“You’re Zuckerman, aren’t you?”

I turned, and I saw her. She was tall and slender with a heart-shaped face that barely contained her enormous blue eyes. Her hair was candy-red and lustrous and it cascaded past her naked shoulders, past a bandeau of two clamshells that cradled her breasts, past a perfectly tapered waist, all the way down to the glimmering costume fish-tail that began at her hips and extended to the floor.

“I am,” I said. “And you are?”

“Oh, nobody, I guess. Just a fan.” One look at her–a microsecond of erotic apprehension—was all it took to undo a decade’s worth of meticulously suppressed desire. “You seem surprised that I know your name.”

“Perhaps I am. I wasn’t aware that my literary cachet was worth anything south of the Mason-Dixon.”

“I see,” she purred, screwing her bewitching mouth into a subversive grin, “Just because we’re in Central Florida you suppose that our reading must be limited to Twilight and The Hunger Games?”

“I suppose nothing, although I confess that speculation is somewhat of a professional hazard. To be honest, until this moment I had not much considered the literary tastes of your demographic.”

“The Florida demographic or the mermaid demographic?”

I blushed. “Either,” I said, off balance. “–both.”

She smiled again and flipped her voluminous hair over one shoulder. My god, she was intoxicating! Did she know the effect she had on me? Was she aware of the elemental force she exerted? How couldn’t she? A mythological creature specially designed to enflame the Yiddish brain—half shiksa, half sturgeon—the unholy amalgam of Mayflower breeding and the appetizers platter at Barney Greengrass.

“Well,” she said, “It was nice meeting you, Mr. Zuckerman.”

“Please, call me Nathan,” I said.

“See you around, Nathan.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon in a narcotic haze, skipping the 5 PM “It’s a Small World” to walk from Fantasyland all the way to Epcot, where a meticulously recreated “Little Newark” was still under construction. I found Jerry standing behind a small kiosk hawking Brenda Patimkin bobbleheads and lurid breast-shaped popsicles. I told him everything: The hair! The eyes! The lilting voice, the easy laugh, the bivalve bustier.

“She sounds swell,” Jerry said, “but she’s teasing you.”

“How would you know?”

“Christ Nathan, just look at the facts. You’re five decades older than her! Besides, she has a reputation.”

“I have a reputation.”

“You had a reputation; whereas your coveted mermaid is just hitting her stride. It’s all over Epcot: Tarzan, Robin Hood, Captain America—at least six out of seven dwarves—after Dumbo she’s the most popular ride in the park!”

“Is that supposed to discourage me?”

Jerry sighed and he absently flicked at one of the bobbleheads. “Do me a favor,” he said, “Sleep on it. If the urge is still there tomorrow—to use the local parlance—be my guest.”

I took Jerry’s advice. When I slept that night I dreamed I was an oversexed octopus engaged in a raucous undersea orgy, my eight randy tentacles simultaneously engaged with a harem of flounder, seahorses, assorted crustaceans. I woke up breathless and drenched in sweat, with a pounding chest and a redoubled desire to possess her and to ravish her to the best of my depleted abilities. In the morning I asked Chewbacca to cover for me and beat a path to Ariel’s Enchanted Grotto at the far end of Fantasyland.

“Why Mr. Zuckerman! What an unexpected surprise.”

On second impression she was no less dazzling than the first. If anything, she was more beguiling, more alluring, more erotic, perched on a pink clamshell, a bubble-gum Bottecelli.

“I thought I ought to see you in your element,” I said, “I’ve a longstanding interest in marine biology.”

She giggled, and her crimson mane bounced and waved in a way I had only seen in shampoo commercials.

“Are you flirting with me, Mr. Zuckerman?”

“Say I was. Would it be unwelcome?”

“Hypothetically, no.”

“Well then, hypothetically, yes.” It was mad and reckless and utterly impossible, and yet I could not stop. Impulsively I seized her hand. “Come away with me,” I said, “We’ll go to New York or Boston or even Chicago—wherever you want. I have friends.”

“You’re mad!” she cried, but she did not withdraw her hand. “I couldn’t.

“You could–you must! We’ll rent a walk up in the West Seventies so you can walk to Fairway. We’ll go to readings and order takeout three times a week and buy a subscription to the Philharmonic. I’ll write during the days and you can work at a small non-profit in Brooklyn–or maybe Sotheby’s?”

She gasped. “I’ve always dreamed of working at Sotheby’s!”

“Then it’s perfect,” I resolved. Her sparkling eyes were no longer tracing mine, but they had drifted dreamily, toward the ceiling. “Meet me at midnight–at the bus stop outside the main entrance. Promise me you’ll be there.”

She bit her lip, and there was a long and agonizing pause while she considered her answer.

“Okay,” she said finally, breathlessly. “I promise.”

Moments later I skipped out of the grotto, giddy and rejuvenated. I hoped a turnstile and took the monorail back to little Newark to pack my things and prepare for a new life.

I waited for her for two hours. Had it not been for a sudden, Floridian rainburst that started just after two thirty I would probably have waited longer. I ran back to Epcot and took cover in the German pavilion, where I spent a long and restless night hiding in the attic of a Bavarian cottage, waking up every twenty minutes or so to look out for the Gestapo. The next morning I woke up late, and I made no pretense of attending my post on Main Street. Instead I willed my bedraggled body across the park and back to the grotto. To my surprise, there was no line. In fact, there was no-one there at all: the entrance was blocked off by white construction tape and a large, mouse-eared sign that read “Closed until further notice.”

Perplexed, I wandered around the perimeter of the grotto until I saw a large and soft-faced man in a bright red lobster suit, flicking a yoyo on a concrete bench.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, “But I’m looking for—“

“She’s gone,” he said, not looking up.

“What do you mean gone?”

“I mean gone. She ran off with Goofy last night. Apparently they’ve been lovers for months. Probably halfway to Reno by now.”

Goofy? Are you sure?”

“Positive,” the lobster nodded. “Damn near broke Captain America’s heart—he thought they were exclusive, poor bastard.”

“Poor bastard,” I repeated. I sighed and thanked him for the information.

“No problem,” he shrugged, his eyes returning to the yoyo. “And if you know any other bosomy redheads who can pull off a fishtail, send ‘em my way. A good mermaid is hard to find.”

I spent the next three hours wandering aimlessly from Space Mountain to Pirates of the Caribbean to the Country Bear Jamboree. It was a glorious day. The sun was bright and hot on my skin and a soft breeze whispered over my scalp, and I contemplated my future—no glorious victory lap, but a quiet and sexless denouement amid the starry-eyed, button-nosed castaways of the American Century. Standing there, as a band of animatronic bears performed a suite of hillbilly chanteys, I felt an odd and pleasant sense of calm; and I wondered if I did not belong here after all.

Just then, I felt a gentle tug on my pant leg. I looked down to see a six-year-old with golden hair crowned by a tiny plastic tiara. “Who’re you?” she asked with bright, earnest eyes. I paused for a moment and considered the transience of life and the exquisite ironies of fiction.

“I’m the genie from Aladdin,” I said.

“Oh.” She smiled, satisfied, and I watched as she turned her back on the jamboree and scampered away, onto the next adventure.

Yoni Brenner is a writer for film, television and print. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, GQ, McSweeney’s, the New Republic and Smithsonian.