Philip Roth

A long (fictional) trail of tears.

Print this page Print this page

The Roth canon, now numbering 28 volumes, also includes The Breast (1972), The Professor of Desire (1977), and The Dying Animal (2001)--slim studies of a comparative literature professor named David Kepesh. It also comprises novels centering on a fictional Philip Roth--Operation Shylock and The Plot Against America (2004)--and a loose grouping of other books, including the National Books Award-winning Sabbath's Theater (1993).

Exit Zuckerman

The (supposedly) final Zuckerman novel, Exit Ghost (2007), chronicles the narrator's return to New York City after a long absence in the Berkshires. He is suffering from the ravages of prostrate cancer and has come to the city for treatments that might relieve his incontinence.

Haunted by ghosts from The Ghost Writer, including an ambitious young biographer who hopes to bring the long-forgotten E.I. Lonoff back to his rightful place in the literary pantheon and Amy Bellette, the mysterious young woman Zuckerman once imagined was Anne Frank and who is now in the last stages of brain cancer, Zuckerman takes the full measure of a culture he has long ignored, as death rattles surround him.

What It's All About

In Exit Ghost, Lonoff's would-be biographer thinks he has the "secret" that will explain the writer's short stories and why he could never finish his long-awaited novel--and not surprisingly, that secret is incest. This was true for the other famous Roth, Henry, but not for Lonoff.

No matter. What biographers need is a juicy story that will deflect attention away from the work and onto the person at the writing desk. This is why Roth makes a point of including in Exist Ghost a letter to the New York Times, presumably written by Ms. Bellette but actually penned by none other than Lonoff himself, that explains better than anything else what Roth's fiction has been about.

"There was a time when intelligent people used literature to think. That time is coming to an end…The way in which serious fiction eludes paraphrase and description--and hence requiring thought--is a nuisance to your cultural journalist."

In ruminating about the long-dead Lonoff and the intellectually lazy biographer out to make a splash, Roth is no doubt thinking about himself and the biographer who will tick off his scandalous pronouncements, bad marriages, and disaffection with Judaism, and in the process ignore the nearly 30 books that changed the landscape of American literature in ways that make all of us, Jew and non Jew alike, richer, fuller human beings.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.