Advance and Retreat
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 304 pp. $26.00
"An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick,” wrote William Butler Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium.” Unless, Yeats added, “Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress.”
Philip Roth used another phrase in Yeats’s great poem as the title of his novel The Dying Animal (2001). His new novel, Exit Ghost, is about a man aging in more ways than one and trying to sing himself back into the flow of life. But the most one can say is that in this case the endgame comes none too soon; for Soul in this book is simply not singing nearly loud enough to redeem the tattered coat that is its protagonist Nathan Zuckerman.
This is the last of nine novels in which the character of Zuckerman has served as Roth’s alter ego, elaborating in the first person on aspects of a life and career very much like the author’s own. Exit Ghost is thus also about the theme of fading literary power, which it ironically exemplifies, and about the fading as well of the intense and vital American literary culture in which Roth/ Zuckerman first emerged.
Although a character named Zuckerman first appeared earlier in the Roth canon, the series, if we may call it that, opens in The Ghost Writer, a novel published in 1979 but set in the 1950’s. In it, Zuckerman as aspiring young author pays an overnight visit to his literary idol, an uncompromising craftsman named E.I. Lonoff, who lives a secluded life in the Berkshire woods, where he pens his short stories. Exit Ghost, set in the present, also involves Lonoff, who is now dead and forgotten by younger readers—except for one, Richard Kliman, a vulgar and ambitious would-be littérateur who wants to write his biography. The contrast between the dead writer’s pure, exacting dedication to literature and the predatory biographer’s desire to expose what he believes is the salacious secret of his subject’s life is one of several ways in which Roth makes these two novels serve as bookends to his Zuckerman series.
Another is the figure of Zuckerman himself, now far from the priapic young author burning with the energies of former days. Instead, we find him here elaborating in intricate detail on the effects of the prostate operation he underwent several books back. This writer, who had won renown not only for his unprecedented sexual explicitness but for his gospel of untrammeled personal freedom, is now impotent and incontinent. For some years he, too, has lived virtually alone in the isolated woodsy area of the Berkshires where he first met Lonoff, and where in imitation of his idol he has striven to work out a life of reasonable satisfaction.
But now Zuckerman receives a quickening jolt, in the form of a possible medical procedure to improve his condition. The news brings him to New York City, where, feeling a surge of life, he arranges to swap residences for a year with a young couple seeking a temporary rural retreat: the wealthy, privileged, alluring Jamie Logan and her devoted husband Billy Davidoff. In the end the exchange is canceled, but for a short time Zuckerman becomes part of the couple’s life while simultaneously fending off Kliman’s invasion into Lonoff’s secrets and reacquainting himself with Lonoff’s once-young mistress, Amy Bellette, formerly the inspiration for a fascinating flight of Zuckermanian fantasy in The Ghost Writer, now a shriveled wraith battling cancer, surviving on nothing but the memory of her brief glory days with the great Lonoff and lamenting how political correctness and other trends in the literary culture have robbed him of his place.
All of this opens up new prospects for Zuckerman—of duty, action, contact, urgency, involvement, inspiration, association—that he alternately moves to embrace and then shrinks from. His repeated pattern of advance-and-retreat forms, indeed, the shape of the novel. Although the title Exit Ghost is evidently meant to allude to Macbeth, with Zuckerman, Banquo-like, haunting the world from which he has been rudely dispatched, it also suggests Hamlet, a play in which the haunted main character both wants and does not want to take the path that fate has thrust before him.
Enough of the old Zuckerman remains for him more or less to fall in love with Jamie. Alone in his hotel room at the New York Hilton, he composes lengthy, formal dialogues between the two of them, named “He” and “She,” in which they discuss life, youth, age, literature, and the rather implausible idea of a relationship. But we soon learn of the prosaic reality that resists Zuckerman’s efforts: no such interaction is even remotely on Jamie’s mind; unexciting, adoring Billy is evidently (along with some fervent Bush-hatred) enough for her; and she is amazingly content with the wedded normalcy that Zuckerman himself has always rejected in favor of his more “interesting” path of “repeated marital failure, furtive adultery, the emotional boomerang of erotic attachments,” and whatever assorted perversity he could get hold of.
While Zuckerman tries to spark something into being with Jamie, at least in thought, he must also deal with the very real presence of Richard Kliman, the most vivid character in this book. Tall, virile, athletic, good-looking, Kliman, like the younger Zuckerman himself, is a man of “no restraints,” sometimes nasty and disrespectful, always peremptory, demanding, and loquacious. Nathan’s envy of him is made keener by his suspicion that he is Jamie’s lover. Though appalled at what Kliman means to do, and determined to stop the publication of his exposé of Lonoff, he is at the same time fascinated. “The Jews can’t stop making these,” he reflects:
I would have supposed the type had all but disappeared from his generation and that mild, reasonable Billy Davidoff was closer to the current norm—and for all I knew, Kliman was the last of the agitators and affronters.
In this company of affronters, Nathan forthwith acknowledges, he himself was once a member in, as it were, good standing. Not only his scandalous early novel Carnovsky (a.k.a. Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969) but much of his early career had been an affront. He was an affronter’s affronter—now, in his decline, facing a man in the prime of youth who has set out to usurp Nathan’s world as Nathan once usurped the world before him. “I had been out of contact with anyone like [Kliman] for a long time,” he reflects. “I had been out of contact with a lot of things for a long time.”
With everything that is going on in this novel, Roth has pitched the stakes high enough to keep the reader turning pages. And there are local pleasures, too, including Zuckerman’s observations on some of the changes in city life that have taken place during his recent self-exile. These include the astonishing state of undress in which many contemporary American women appear in public, and the quasi-Dantean spectacle of a street full of people unselfconsciously barking to invisible interlocutors via cell phones.
But as a novel Exit Ghost is marred by wearisome repetition, as Zuckerman again and again reviews at every turn why he does not, cannot, will not grasp the potential of the new phase of life presenting itself to him. To his already considerable physical deficits, amplified by glimpses of both the cancer-stricken Amy and her descriptions of the hard death of Lonoff, he adds the possibility of memory loss—which permits Roth to start playing postmodern games that make us unsure of what is actually happening. Between the two of them, at any rate, Zuckerman and his creator discover no means whatsoever of transcending the physical continuum of their lives; as they were once obsessed with sex and bodily pleasure, so are they now tediously obsessed with bodily decay and death.
Inevitably, what the reader begins to suspect is that this relentless focus on decline and mortality is, for Roth, little more than an excuse for not working his material through to satisfactory conclusion. Instead, he pads his pages with literary allusions, aimless digressions, and half-hearted denunciations of President Bush and the rich Republican Texas circle of which Jamie’s parents are a part.
The truth is, Zuckerman’s story and a good part of Roth’s ended years ago. Which is why, in the three Zuckerman novels preceding this one—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1997), and The Human Stain (2001)—Zuckerman was confined to narrating the tales of other characters. As he muses in American Pastoral, “What he’d made his fiction from was gone—a first-generation American father possessed by the Jewish demons, a second-generation American son possessed by their exorcism: that was his whole story.” And no less gone for him are the “notables”—those
intellectually exceptional American sons of immigrant Jewish housepainters and butchers and garment workers who were then in their prime, running Partisan Review and writing for COMMENTARY and the New Leader and Dissent, irascible rivals sharply contentious with one another, bearing the emotional burden of having been raised by semiliterate Yiddish-speaking parents whose immigrant limitations and meager culture evoked ire and tenderness in equally crippling portions.
That world was Zuckerman/ Roth’s matrix, and those burdened Jews, righteous rabbis, dominating fathers, and patriarchal critics with high-minded ideals and impossible standards, whom he deliberately chagrined again and again—those figures were his best literary friends. They were the goad against which he chafed and that brought his art into being. The story was over when his battle with them was won.
And won it was. No wonder Zuckerman falters and retreats. For what he apparently cannot bear confronting is the part played by his own aggressive licensing of behavior and expression, the trouncing of all limits, standards, and restraints, in forming the culture that he now deplores—a culture that has replaced bold transgressiveness with louche nonchalance and literary devotion with personalism and sensationalism. In American Pastoral, his best novel to date, Roth had begun exploring the costs of the license and liberation he had championed, but evidently the task was too chilling, or too damning. Now it seems he would rather just plead age and illness and get Zuckerman and himself back to the unchallenging silence of the Berkshire woods.