What should we make of Philip Roth's alter ego in his declining years?
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Almost 30 years ago by our calendar—nearly 50 by Nathan Zuckerman's—Philip Roth's alter ego journeyed as a young literary pilgrim up to the Berkshire farmhouse of E.I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer. (That novella can be read and reread, pored over and dissected, and still be paid the highest compliment: How did he do that?) There the wages of Nathan Zuckerman were laid out plainly. There is Good Zuckerman and Bad Zuckerman. Good Zuckerman is a Keatsian superhero, capable of entering deeply into the suffering of others. Bad Zuckerman is a vainglorious satyr who finds much of humanity tedious. Good Zuckerman, like Good Roth, buys our respect, even our awe, with a command of the American idiom that rivals Bellow or even Melville. Bad Zuckerman cheapens our awe by trading on it for chicks—always with the chicks!—and vanity-stroking clichés about "the primacy of the imagination."
Both Good Zuckerman and Bad Zuckerman are amply on display in Exit Ghost, the latest Roth novel, leaving the reviewer free to choose which book he would most like to review: Is Exit Ghost the sullen ranting of a superannuated literary celebrity unaccustomed to failure? Or is it a raging Lear-like declamation on the indignity of old age and the predations of time? To get at Exit Ghost one needs to see Good Zuckerman and Bad Zuckerman for what they are: a package deal. For Good Zuckerman does not deploy his imagination as an instrument of sympathy so much as an instrument of power. I misspoke when I said Zuckerman enters into the suffering of others. A conjurer more than an empathizer, a magician in the optative mood, Zuckerman assigns possible lives to others, as when he wondered if Amy Bellette, Lonoff's amanuensis, might be Anne Frank; and as he did many years later when he imagined—along the way to Roth's writing the finest American novel published during my lifetime—the fate of his old high school classmate, the Swede, in American Pastoral.
Bearing in mind, then, that Good Zuckerman has always been a Nietzschean wolf tricked out as a Keatsian sheep, we can begin to understand this old man as something more than an arrogant fogey. At the opening of Exit Ghost, Zuckerman is both incontinent and impotent. Afraid to leave behind him in the local college pool the "thin, billowing cloud of urine" that escapes when he swims, he does laps, rain or shine, alone in his pond. He never reads a paper, doesn't own a television, and is only dimly aware of the reign of extraconstitutional chicanery known as Bush-Cheney. Zuckerman, of course, had been worldly, once, a celebrity writer, a Manhattanite; he has now returned to his old haunt to have a medical procedure that may alleviate his incontinence. His distaste for the city he discovers is summed up in an eloquent diatribe against the ubiquity of the cell phone:
Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the street through one's animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire.
Collapse suggests a change in character as much as habit. And while pedestrians cannot stand a normal helping of urban solitude, they mistake their ostensibly harmless chatting for what it really is: Surveillance is a menacing word, after all, appropriate to a secret policeman. Critics have tried to characterize Exit Ghost as a book about a famous writer whose libido and penis will not sync, whose mind is still (mostly) acute, but whose diaper contains multitudes—in short, a book, like Everyman and The Dying Animal before it, about the humiliations of old age. But this is not quite right. Exit Ghost is a novel about a deeply antisocial man who, seriocomically, tries to enforce a Nietzschean vision on a world that has gone on the Friends and Family Plan.
True, the old man's status, as a relic from another era, when Greatest Generation novelists fought out who would be master, who would be slave, is brought into relief by his lust for a younger woman. Prompted by the admonition from a recently deceased friend—"You must promise me that you will not go on living as you were when I found you"—Zuckerman answers an ad in the New York Review of Books from a couple looking to trade their Upper West Side apartment for a country getaway. The husband and wife turn out to be writers: Billy a sweet beta male novelist, Jamie a plush goddess derived from Texas oil money, both recently of Harvard. Their good friend is Kliman, a young and almost pathologically self-possessed literary hustler who wants to make his name writing a biography of the all-but-forgotten Lonoff. To this end, he has been stalking (the literary universe consisting of only nine people, apparently) Amy Bellette, now scalp-shorn and wasted from brain cancer, as she possesses a manuscript of Lonoff's unpublished novel. Bellette may also be able to confirm Kliman's hypothesis, that Lonoff committed incest with his half-sister. (Here Lonoff, who is based loosely on Bernard Malamud, shades into Henry Roth.) Zuckerman's lust for Texas Jamie and his thoroughgoing hatred of Kliman return him, briefly, to the world.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.