In 1997, Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral, his soaring lament on the 1960s. It was the first installment of Roth’s American trilogy, in which he dissected post-war America with penetrating intellect, pathos, and humor. He followed American Pastoral up quickly with I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000), both of which also won significant literary awards.
At the time, much was made of Roth’s age. Nearing 70 when the last of these books was published, Roth–once both feted and reviled as the enfant terrible of American letters–was writing books of towering achievement at an age when many novelists find their artistic powers in decline. In his 60s, it seemed, Roth had been born anew.
On Death and Dying
Now 74, Roth gives us Exit Ghost, itself the third in a trilogy of recent books, these examining not a particular moment in history, but a specific moment in life: the end.
The death trilogy began with The Dying Animal (2001) and Everyman (2006) and concludes with Exit Ghost. In the last, Roth resurrects Nathan Zuckerman, his literary alter-ego of eight previous novels (including the American trilogy), in order to, if not quite kill him off, urge him close to the precipice.
Set in New York City, Exit Ghost begins a few days before the 2004 presidential elections, when Zuckerman–a well-known novelist who for more than a decade has lived a solitary existence in the Berkshires–returns to Manhattan for a procedure he hopes will improve the incontinence that has dogged him since prostate cancer surgery several years earlier. Zuckerman’s memory is going, too, and he is reduced to keeping a log of conversations and commitments in a marble notebook like the ones children use in grade school.
Haunted by the Past
In short order, Zuckerman spots Amy Bellette (a central character in the first Zuckerman book, The Ghost Writer), who had so entranced him five decades earlier during an evening spent at the home of Zuckerman’s mentor, the renowned author E.I. Lonoff. Now Bellette, who in the intervening years had been Lonoff’s mistress, is dying of brain cancer.
On a whim, Zuckerman agrees to swap houses for a year with Billy and Jamie, a young writer couple looking to escape Manhattan after 9/11. Zuckerman is quickly smitten with the beautiful Jamie–blue-blooded scion of Texas oil money–and, deep in the throes of a sexual reawakening, he hopes to woo her away from her sweet and devoted husband.
As it turns out, Jamie’s college sweetheart, Robert Kliman, is writing a biography of the long-dead Lonoff.
Handsome, self-assured and young, Kliman immediately raises Zuckerman’s hackles. He is the competition: both for the girl and (because of his youthful virility) for life itself. He is a "not yet" to Zuckerman’s "no longer." Zuckerman, along with the dying Bellette, sets about thwarting Kliman’s literary aspirations.
A Novel Novel?
Exit Ghost, in a sense, is Zuckerman’s funeral. At funerals, though, we tend to emphasize the beauty of the life lived and to gloss over the often-difficult end. In Exit Ghost, Roth does no such thing. As one character puts it: "The end is so immense, it is its own poetry. It requires little rhetoric. Just state it plainly."
And this, unfortunately, is just what Roth proceeds to do. The book focuses on three people who are either dead or dying, pitting them against three more in the prime of their lives. Roth writes straightforwardly about death, doling it out both on its own terms and in relation to the living.
In both instances, death comes off poorly: It is ugly. It is painful. It smells. It is embarrassing and demoralizing, depressing and degrading. Death, here, doesn’t come quickly; it is heralded by scars and tumors and soaking wet diapers. Roth, as usual, renders all of this starkly and powerfully.
"As if incontinence weren’t indignity enough, one had then to be addressed like a churlish eight-year-old balking at taking his cod liver oil," Zuckerman says after hanging up with a nurse.
"But that’s how it goes when an elderly patient refuses to resign himself to the inevitable travails and totter politely toward the grave: Doctors and nurses have a child on their hands who must be soothed into soldiering on in behalf of his own lost cause."
True? I think so. But didn’t we already know that the elderly revert to childlike behaviors? That aging can be awful? Death unbearable? Is there any among us who thought otherwise?
The Surprise of No Surprise
In his long and distinguished career, Roth has been at his best when offering pointed insights into ourselves and our society, insights we might not have noticed without the aid of his unique eye. Insights that, when pointed out, we often wish weren’t so.
Roth has also distinguished himself from his contemporaries through his ability to take on deadly serious issues with a sense of humor. In Exit Ghost, we find little surprising insight and even less incisive humor. Death is portrayed much as we know it to be. Zuckerman’s desire for the young and beautiful woman is just that, an old man’s longing for his youth. His distaste for the young Kliman is just what it seems, a dying man’s resentment of a younger man.
Roth, in other words, writes about death and dying much as we would have expected just about anyone to write about death and dying. And so, unlike in so much of his earlier work, it does not surprise us.
Phil and Woody
Woody Allen and Philip Roth came of age around the same time in Jewish families living on the eastern seaboard. Both have been extraordinarily prolific. Both have been called quintessentially Jewish artists–and, simultaneously, anti-Semitic, or, at least, self-hating. Both have created characters that readers and viewers have had a difficult time separating from the artist. And both have jumped between–and mixed–the funny and the serious. Both, too, have remained artistically active into their 70s.
In Allen’s autobiographically inspired Stardust Memories, fans of the filmmaker Sandy Bates (played by Allen) frequently inform him that, while his most recent stuff’s okay, they prefer the "earlier, funnier" pictures.
Watching that movie, it’s hard not to sympathize with Bates (in part, because we know Allen’s been getting this line for years): Why can’t these boors appreciate that he’s an artist, and that artists’ work ought not be monolithic? And yet, reading Exit Ghost, I found myself siding with the boors; much as I appreciate what Roth’s going for here, I prefer the earlier, funnier books.
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