What should we make of Philip Roth's alter ego in his declining years?
Click here to read more from Slate's Fall Fiction Week.
Since the minuet of Goodbye, Columbus gave way to the orgasmatron of Portnoy's Complaint, Roth has made up for what he lacks in narrative elegance with immense Judeo-Whitmanian vitality. But there is inelegance, and there is inelegance, and Exit Ghost is premised on a whopping coincidence—namely, that the would-be Lonoff biographer is also the young couple's close friend. The apparatus, while clumsy, is apparently necessary to make Kliman the focus of the book's antipathy. What are the particulars of Kliman's trespass? The reader will be forgiven for not picking them out cleanly from amid Zuckerman's fury. Kliman commits the sin of being everything Zuckerman once was—he is virile, confident, still young.
But Zuckerman despises Kliman above all for what Zuckerman perceives as a fundamental psychic dishonesty. Young Kliman's stated desire is to honor the unjustly obscure Lonoff with his investigative biography. For Zuckerman, though, the writing life isn't a peer-to-peer ego massage, or a respectful détente between the living and the dead. It offers primal access to The Word. When your power to describe supersedes mine, you are exalted, I am negated. Thus Good Zuckerman was never so good; he was Zeus coming to Leda in the form of a swan. But perhaps Bad Zuckerman was never so bad: He is a joke Roth likes to tell, now and again, at his own expense. Here is Zuckerman, old Zuckerman, bad Zuckerman, half out of his mind with rage and lust. In Kliman, he desperately wants an Oedipal rival. What he gets is a smart-enough dumb jock looking for benediction from an admired giant. What he imagines in Jamie are soulful dialogues and a license for roving hands. But her first actual words on the matter are also her final ones: "It's an interesting idea, Mr. Zuckerman, but no."
The critics most sour on Roth are generally those most susceptible to the facile confusion of Bad Zuckerman with his creator. In sour reply, Exit Ghost is filled with the predictable Rothian flummery about the parasitic uselessness of critics—the "lice of literature," as they are herein called. The nastiness culminates in a letter Bellette writes to the Times, dictated to her, she claims, by Lonoff: "If I had something like Stalin's powers, I would not squander it on silencing the imaginative writers. I would silence those who write about imaginative writers." Whether or not this represents a true feeling on the parts of Lonoff, Amy Bellette, Zuckerman, and Roth, sentiments quite like it have a persistence in Roth's work. It can be pointed out, quite calmly, that the idea is not only juvenile but so unhistorical as to not survive a straight recitation of names. Such Stalinist powers would need to stamp out Ben Jonson, Dr. Johnson, Pope, Hazlitt, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Hawthorne, Orwell, and John Updike, for starters; and as for the letters of Keats that Zuckerman quotes so lovingly, as an open sesame directed at Jamie's pants, they never would have survived had Zuckerman's silly pieties about a writer's privacy once been applied to their publication.
If Roth needs to grow up on the subject of critics, the critics need to grow up on the subject of Roth. The animating obsession in Exit Ghost is neither with sex nor bad cultural journalism, but with life's final insult: that the power, not of fucking or fighting, but of the telling, will finally be confiscated, and worse, ceded to a manifestly inferior vessel. To a man who encounters resistance with an incredulity bordering on rage, whose life for 50 years has been one connubial and literary triumph after another, it must be astonishing to imagine a day—a day approaching at an accelerating gallop—when people like me, a nice enough guy on the A train with an advance reader's copy and a cell phone in his pocket, will hold over his cherished reputation the last word.
(Read Tim Noah's take on Exit Ghost.)
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.