How to read Philip Roth's quartet on aging.
He felt the strength in her well-muscled arms. He fumbled with her heavy breasts, he cupped her shapely behind in his hands, and drew her toward him so that they kissed again. Then he led her to the sofa in the living room, where, blushing furiously as he watched her, she undid her jeans and was with a man for the first time since college. He was with a lesbian for the first time in his life.
Neither the lack of affect nor the generic language ("shapely behind," "was with a man") is out of character. Depression dulls the libido, and Simon may well be a man more in need of consolation than of sex. Nonetheless, the flatness of the prose poses a technical problem. We need some inkling of awakened desire to believe in Simon's transformation and to feel the sexual humiliation that follows.
It's hard to tell whether Roth's rather perfunctory style—most notable whenever Pegeen is the subject, but intermittently evident throughout—is the result of artful artlessness or of writerly enervation. Roth, to give him credit, is trying to pull off a supremely difficult feat here. He wants to make art out of a man bereft of art, to create the illusion of life in and through an actor who has lost the power to beget illusion. But this punishingly self-reflexive form of mimesis flirts dangerously with failure. We are forced to ask: Does the super-self-conscious tone match the super-self-conscious subject, or has Roth fallen into the same trap as Simon?
It has not escaped Roth that readers might not know how to answer that question, so he answers it for us. The first third of the book undertakes a kind of covert disquisition on the quality of "thinness." "Into Thin Air" is the title of the chapter. Simon's "whole intricate personality," writes Roth, "was entirely at the mercy of 'thin air.' " The source of that expression is Prospero in The Tempest, whom Simon has played—badly, in his most recent production—and whose lines repeat themselves in his head:"These our actors/ As I foretold you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, into thin air."
One thought that occurred to this worried reader is that Roth's discourse on "thinness" is his response to the many critics who dismissed the first two novels in the quartet as "thin." A more charitable—and critically respectable—thought is that Roth is hereby advising us to understand the novel as a daring experiment in late style. In a 2006 New Yorker essay, the late John Updike quoted various scholars on that style—it's "the senile sublime" says one; it's pure artistry "shed of obscuring puppy fat," says another—but concluded that what late works usually have in common is "a translucent thinness."
At the end of his life, the artist looks back, reworking old themes in a new mode. Once-thick material is subjected to further processes of distillation, rendered somehow more vaporous in the alembic of the retrospective consciousness. The taste is not always pleasant. Theodor Adorno, describing Beethoven's string quartets, wrote, "The maturity of the late works does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are … not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation."
But we're still not sure how to take the novel, our doubts prompted, in large part, by Simon's own incessant self-questioning. Does The Humbling represent the writer's self-awareness or his self-travesty? And if it's self-travesty, as Simon asks himself, "how had it happened? Was it purely the passage of time bringing on decay and collapse? Was it a surprising manifestation of aging?" We never really find out why Simon lost his magic. I consider it proof of Roth's courage—of his will to experiment, no matter when or with what—that by the end of the The Humbling we can't tell whether he has lost his.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.