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.
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.