Roth by numbers – a review of Philip Roth’s latest novel, ‘Exit Ghost’

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Nathan Zuckerman, a writer living out his winter years in rural isolation, believes he finally has a handle on unpredictability. Prostate cancer has left him impotent and incontinent, and his daily routine consists entirely of pushing words around a page. But at least he is free – free from pain, from vulnerability, from the unequal struggle against life’s contingency. But one day, on his first visit to New York in eleven years, stirred by the slim hope of renewal offered by bladder surgery, he surprises himself by answering a house-swap ad posted by two young writers looking for a break from the city. Suddenly embroiled in the real world again, he is haunted by all he imagined he’d left behind – desire, intimacy, conflict, and the unruly self he thought he’d banished somewhere up in the Connecticut woods.

There’s a twist, of which more in a moment. But first, a couple of introductions. Exit Ghost is the twenty-eighth book, no less, by the distinguished American novelist Philip Roth. Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933 to second-generation Jewish immigrant parents. He published three books of quite traditional realistic fiction before gaining notoriety with his fourth, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), an outrageous account of Jewish psychosexual pathology and the first (and only) great novel of masturbation. Now 74, he is reckoned by many to be America’s best living writer.

This is the tenth Roth novel to feature Nathan Zuckerman, a character he created in 1974,who has been the vehicle for many of his enduring preoccupations. Zuckerman was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933 to second-generation Jewish immigrant parents. He published three books of quite traditional realistic fiction before gaining notoriety with his fourth . . . but stop me if you’ve heard this before.

There are writers who, short of an idea or a buck, will trot out a novel about a writer who is short of an idea or a buck, with a vengeful portrait of some irritant ex-wife or rival thrown in for good measure. The Zuckerman books, though partly responsible for begetting this mini-genre, are much more than the story of the author’s life with names changed to protect the not-so-innocent. Taken altogether, they are a brilliant deconstruction of the mystique of the modern American author and an investigation of the real-life sources of his inspiration. By tempting you to read them as a roman-a-clef they take you on a tour of the border territory between imagination and reality. At one point in Exit Ghost, a character holds out a manuscript to Zuckerman and insists: ‘This is a tortured confession posing as a novel.’ ‘Unless it’s a novel posing as a tortured confession,’ snaps Zuckerman.

About the twist in Exit Ghost. It’s that there is no twist. Zuckerman re-enters the world of people, relationships and events – and the result is a non-event. He has imaginary sex with the young woman in the house-swap deal; he meets an old acquaintance and becomes briefly immersed in some literary politics. But nothing really happens. Zuckerman emerges from his imaginary world deep in the country to discover an equally imaginary world in New York, thus illustrating a characteristically Rothian paradox: that what we innocently call real life may be as much a matter of the imagination as the stuff of literature.

The danger for Roth has always been that his animating paradoxes can become a little too neat: his major intellectual influence is, after all, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Throughout this book he is content to adumbrate his familiar themes, to sketch characters and elide dialogue. Here’s Zuckerman overhearing another character on the phone to her parents:

In her voice you could hear just how battered she was, not least by the fact that her parents were the very sort of people her liberal conscience couldn’t abide . . . You could hear both the great bond and the great struggle against. You could hear all it had cost her to forge a new being and all the good it had done.

After fifty years at the summit of American literature Roth probably feels entitled to ignore creative-writing-programme rules like ‘show, don’t tell’. But too much of Exit Ghost is written like this – lightly etched, fluent and overdetermined. Never has a novel about the unpredictability of life felt so – well, predictable.

One source of comedy in earlier Zuckerman books was the collapsed distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Zuckerman, like his creator, aims at high-culture distinction and ends up being the subject of salacious gossip on daytime TV. (One talk show host, on reading Portnoy’s Complaint, famously quipped: ‘I’d like to meet Philip Roth – but I don’t want to shake his hand.’) By Exit Ghost, Zuckerman seems to have decided that this state of affairs is no laughing matter, and spends a lot of time in rueful contemplation of literature’s abasement at the hands of mainstream media. Sometimes it seems literary culture is indeed direly embattled when newspapers increasingly can’t find room in their printed pages for a books section! But how did Philip Roth, whose career has been characterised by a gleeful assault on the cultural prestige of refinement and seriousness, becomes so po-faced?

If you’re the kind of person who aspires to write a Mills & Boon novel, you can send off for a pack which will supply you with the exact formula for a successful romance. If you were to write a Philip Roth novel by the same method, the result would be something like Exit Ghost. Roth is such a good writer that anything he writes is worth reading – I, for one, would happily while away an afternoon with his collected notes to the milkman – and a thousand ambivalent reviews won’t stop his many fans from devouring this book. But the uninitiated in search of the best of Roth – or indeed some of the best American fiction, period – should seek out a copy of Sabbath’s Theater (1995) or American Pastoral (1997), or one of Roth’s earlier masterpieces. There you’ll find all of Exit Ghost’s principal themes, but in lurid, irresistible flesh.

 

by Matt Hill

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