If you were so inclined, you could view the history of literature as a gradual collapse into the self. Once upon a time, there were stories about gods, gods who acted like humans, gods who transgressed against one another and meddled with life here on earth, and their stories not only chronicled these transgressions—Leda and the Swan, for instance—but the myths explained in part how the world came to be the way it is.
Then came the human characters who were like gods, in their stature, in their accomplishments, in their physical strength. Humans who were even partly divine, and their stories—the tales of these mere mortals—held the course of civilization: Achilles fighting the Trojans, say, or Lancelot betraying his friend and lord, Camelot torn asunder for a romp in the hedgerows.
And perhaps, in this broad-brush analogy of literary history, which casually transposes Northrop Frye’s “theory of modes,” the modern novel really begins with the collapsing of the fictional subject into the mere mortal, the everyday man or woman, as he and she go about their daily lives, falling in love, courting, marrying, falling out of love, cheating, etc. It’s the joke of Joyce’s Ulysses—even Bloom, schlub that he is, is a hero.
But since Modernism broke the mimetic mirror of the novel for good—no reflection comes back unbent now—the main character in the novel has collapsed even further from her Olympian heights; ultimately now the main character is synonymous with the writer herself. The mind that creates and the hero that acts have become one, and the scope of portrayal has forever shrunken.
Characters begin to think like writers, arranging reality to suit their needs, creating and explaining the events around them, imposing their aesthetic vision on the world. They behave as mini-gods. Moreover, writers themselves start to appear as actual characters within the novel. There’s Stephen Dedalus, opposite Bloom’s sincere everydayness. There’s Nabokov’s schemers and dreamers. There’s Updike’s effortlessly eloquent heroes. (Perhaps Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy is such an accomplishment because he fenced in his native eloquence by focusing on a jock for a main character. At times, one can feel Updike kicking against the cage he’s built for himself.)
And then there’s Philip Roth, who has made the Writer, and the Writer’s own self-consciousness, one of the central narrative devices of his career. Most of Roth’s main characters are writers, and he has explored—in his first Zuckerman trilogy—the writer as a professional in the world and under attack by that world; he has further explored—in his second Zuckerman trilogy—the fictive process, the compulsive dissembling, the alchemy of writers let loose on their “material.” The first is a self-consciousness of content, the second a self-consciousness of process.
The Counterlife serves as the hinge between these two trilogies, partaking of both kinds of self-consciousness. I think it might be the greatest of the Zuckerman books, if by greatest we mean the most energetic, the most daring, the most exhausting, the most illuminating, the most unnerving. The first entry, The Ghost Writer, has a fine form to it; it feels, rare for a Roth novel, almost quietly perfect, and its middle Anne Frank/Amy Bellette section is a virtuoso performance. But The Counterlife is something else entirely and deserves its own four-thousand words of appreciation—praise for another day.
Today’s essay is reserved for Exit Ghost, Roth’s ninth, and, according to press reports, final Zuckerman novel. Like in The Counterlife, in this latest novel Roth’s two streams of self-consciousness once again collide.
Of all the American writers currently alive and working, Philip Roth is perhaps the most praised. By pretty much any measure, the quality and amount he has written in the past 15 to 20 years is amazing—since Operation Shylock, the man has been on a tear of epic proportions. He’s won every major literary award of note except for the Nobel Prize. (And to that absence, no matter. Like Nabokov, Roth is better without the Nobel.) When a new Roth novel comes out, which happens with an almost Updikean regularity these days, it is greeted with thunderous applause; all the critics in the stadium get to their feet.
But as with all standing ovations, there’s the feeling at times that the enthusiasm is coercive. I don’t disagree that Roth deserves praise. His output, his vision, his dedication are monumental, but I am troubled by the near universality of the praise. Can this critical valedictorian really be the same Philip Roth who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint? Can this— America’s greatest living literary treasure—be the same writer who created Mickey Sabbath? Can this writer, whose work is gradually being canonized by the Library of America over the span of eight volumes, be the same writer who had David Kepesh turn into a breast in one book and then, in another, drink his mistress’s menstrual blood? All this praise makes Roth seem entirely too comforting, too wise, too Robert Frost-ish in his old man’s wisdom. But Roth is anything but comforting. I’m all for recognizing Roth’s greatness, but to me, reading Roth is frightening.
What’s more, Roth is an extremely limited writer. I had an art teacher once tell me that all great painters essentially painted the same picture over and over again, which is essentially what Roth has done. In terms of content, there is almost no fat in a Roth novel. It is all muscle and bone. As Martin Amis once quipped, Roth doesn’t do weather in his books. Even the conversations have a hurtling intensity. Perhaps that’s one reason why American Pastoral feels so strange to me, what with all those paragraphs about the Swede pretending to be Johnny Appleseed, all that description of New Jersey flora. There’s not that much nature writing in the rest of Roth’s oeuvre put together.
And then there’s the way that Roth has returned, again and again, to the same characters, the same themes, the same locales. In the past half-dozen books, there have been two towering themes—the specter of death via cancer and the cherished New Jersey boyhood. Even the unnamed narrator of Everyman, Roth’s previous novel, wonders at one point how much one can one pine for one’s own innocent boyhood. Even Mickey Sabbath, the man who hates everything, has a soft spot for the Jersey shore. Cancer comes to kill you, it seems, but only if nostalgia doesn’t finish the job first.
And lastly, the prose: The energy. The rage. The energy that is the rage. The slow accumulation of incomplete sentences. Roth’s prose is as identifiable as a Jimi Hendrix solo. He can be great; he can be repetitively great; he can sometimes be merely repetitive; but he’s always identifiably, excitedly, infuriatingly Roth. Like a Bellow of a different register—not as clearly “beautiful” a writer, but rather more coldly analytic at times and at others more sweatily enraged—a paragraph into a novel, and you know whose world you’ve entered.
I don’t say any of this as a Roth hater. In fact, discovering Roth back in college was a revolutionary moment. He was perhaps the first major literary talent I’d read without the sanctification of school, the first writer I’d read at the urging of a friend. The summer I read Portnoy’s Complaint—the summer of 1997—I had no idea who he was. I had no idea who anyone was. I didn’t know anything of literary culture. I knew nothing of aesthetic reputation. I had no inkling of the gradual celebrification of young, first-time novelists, for example, or the ghettoization of poetry. I had never read The New York Review of Books. I had no opinions about David Foster Wallace’s bandana. My sphere of gossip reached all the way to the edge of the quad. I had no idea that literature—as a way of life, as the marrow of a culture—was spent and dying, to be replaced by whatever you want to call it (Web 2.0, the blogosphere, DVR-enabled cable, the wisdom of crowds, the triumph of niches, the tipping point of crap clichés, etc.). I was merely another hick from the sticks. It was, in short, a wonderful time to be alive.
It was a time when you read a book in a silence of ignorance, and sometimes that book came down on you like a thunderclap.
In this new novel, Nathan Zuckerman is not only back as a narrator; he’s back as a character. In the first Zuckerman trilogy, consisting of The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and an epilogue, The Prague Orgy, Zuckerman was the main event. In fact, in rereading those books, it’s interesting to notice how well built into one another they are, and how they dissect fame as a force of destruction. In The Ghost Writer, a young Zuckerman visits E.I. Lonoff, a short story writer and hero of his who lives in the New England woods and spends his days “turning sentences around.” But this ideal, pastoral, nearly hermetic life has a wrinkle, and that wrinkle is Amy Bellette, the young, enigmatic former student who’s also visiting Lonoff, purportedly to arrange his papers for a library. It turns out that Lonoff is having an affair with young Amy and the tension erupts when Lonoff’s wife, Hope, confronts them and storms out. This all happens after Nathan spends the night in their house and creates an elaborate fantasy about Amy’s true origins: she is Anne Frank, saved from death.
Zuckerman Unbound picks up Nathan a few years later, immediately after he has published a book called Carnovsky, a ribald novel that depicts “Jews in a peep-show atmosphere of total perversion,” as one angry letter-writer to Zuckerman has it. The novel confronts the mass hysteria that is fame and how the creator is almost always equated with the creation.
But these two novels are really preludes to The Anatomy Lesson, a barbaric yawp of a book in which Zuckerman is immobilized, both physically and mentally, by everything: the post-Carnovsky feud with his family, the deaths of his parents, his inability to write. It’s the complete explosion of a talent when that talent is taken out into the world. It’s the story of a professional writer annihilated—annihilated by what the world has made of his book.
(The epilogue novella is taken from Zuckerman’s notebooks and describes a trip to Prague where Nathan unsuccessfully tries to retrieve a manuscript of short stories by a great Yiddish writer, unknown in the West and killed by the Nazis; though certainly related to what’s gone before, it feels like a passing tone between two important chords in a seriously long song.)
The second trilogy features Zuckerman as a narrator. Present in each book but not the main character in a conventional sense, Zuckerman has withdrawn to a cabin in the Berkshires, where he writes, and that is all. He has segregated himself from polite society as much as possible, a move that’s only reinforced by the prostatectomy that’s left him impotent and incontinent, meaning he’s physically as well as mentally absent from the “sexual caterwaul” of his previous life. It’s an altogether different kind of Zuckerman.
Exit Ghost finds Zuckerman coming down from his mountain and engaging with the world again. The occasion of his return to Manhattan, shortly before the 2004 presidential election, is a procedure that might, just might, restore his continence, a procedure that supplies an abysmal hope that Zuckerman, at 71, is ready to reenter and reengage with society. After his first go around with the medical procedure, he is struck by two coincidences. First, he sees Amy Bellette in an elevator at the hospital. But she’s no longer the young, dark-eyed mistress. She’s an aged shell of her former self. We learn that she’s undergone the removal of a brain tumor but that the tumor has returned. The second coincidence is that Zuckerman reads an ad in The New York Review of Books for a couple trying to find someone with a house in the country who would like to trade residences for a year, and on a lark—in part inspired by his experimental collagen injection and in part by seeing Amy in such ravaged shape—he calls up the young couple and is immediately thrust back into life.
The couple—Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan—are young, Manhattanite writers, a husband and wife who met at Columbia’s MFA program. Jamie, the neurotic boss of the two, has grown too restless and paranoid to get much work accomplished since 9/11. She—the husband Billy is cast as super-genial—wants what Zuckerman has, an isolated peace.
But things quickly get complicated. Zuckerman is approached by Jamie’s ex-boyfriend Richard Kliman, who is working on a biography of—you guessed it—E.I. Lonoff. He’s located Zuckerman through Billy and Jamie’s friendly tip-off, and having already retrieved material from Amy Bellette—including half of Lonoff’s unpublished novel, written after running off with Amy way back when—he’s eager to get Zuckerman’s blessing, imprimatur, and insider knowledge. Zuckerman is appropriately appalled and somewhat disheartened by the ease with which his bourgeoning friendship with Billy and Jamie is played for biographical connections, but at the same time Zuckerman grows increasingly enamored with Jamie, who is a sort of reincarnated version of Amy. In fact, back at his hotel, he begins to write scenes for a play, He and She, where he invents conversations between himself and Jamie where he “finds out” about her past and her potential adulterous affair with Kliman. In other words, he creates a parallel fiction that gives him a type of access to Jamie that he can’t have otherwise in “real” life.
The heart of the book, and the heart of Kliman’s biographical take on Lonoff, is a great “secret” revealed in Lonoff’s last unpublished and unfinished novel, and that secret is an incestuous affair between Lonoff and his half sister when both were teenagers. For Kliman, this discovery is going to be the keystone in a biography that will restore Lonoff’s name to its rightful place in American letters. But to Zuckerman, the story is a) unbelievable, and b) wholly beside the point, and he basically sees Kliman as a sort of rapacious opportunist, with a talent for “deadly literal mindedness and vulgarity.”
Kliman comes to stand for a whole culture’s assault against the literary, often in the name of literature. Zuckerman’s thoughts on Kliman’s project sound like the true-to-life blurb that should accompany almost every literary biography:
An astonishing thing it is, too, that one’s prowess and achievement, such as they have been, should find their consummation in the retribution of biographical inquisition. The man in control of the words, the man making up the stories all his life, winds up, after death, remembered, if at all, for a story made up about him, his covert brand of baseness discovered and described with uncompromising candor, clarity, self-certainty, with grave concern for the most delicate issues of morality, and with no small measure of delight.
In the best scene in the book, Zuckerman visits Amy in her decrepit apartment and discusses Kliman’s intrusions upon her—he had taken the Lonoff manuscript while she was under the initial assault of the brain tumor—and his accusations against Lonoff. Amy confirms the incest story, but Zuckerman refuses to believe it. In fact, his theory is that Lonoff is riffing on a biographical debate that surrounded Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived in the same Berkshire woods as Lonoff 100 years before. Hawthorne’s biographers speculate that he had an illicit, improper relationship with his sister, and Lonoff, Zuckerman theorizes, was using that biographical myth-making as a model—a fiction made out of a speculation that purports to be fact.
The tension between Zuckerman and Kliman builds, and when Zuckerman realizes that he’s next, biographically speaking, that some impetuous punk is going to vandalize his own life in the not too distant future, and the fact that his infatuation with Jamie will not be returned, futile as it would be anyway, he flees back to his cabin in the New England woods, back to his life of silence and peace.
In many ways, the novel is thrilling. First, it’s simply nice to have Zuckerman back as a man of action. Second, the details about his hermit life are fascinating. In the previous trilogy, details of this life were hinted at, but Zuckerman was so set on the particular novel not being “his” story that we didn’t find out enough about the life, and the reasons behind such an ascetic life, as if more raw information about this self-imposed impoverishment would lead to wisdom. But here our invasive curiosity is somewhat sated:
I’d been alone these past eleven years in a small house on a dirt road deep in the country, having decided to live apart like that some two years before the cancer was diagnosed. I see few people. . . . I don’t go to dinner parties, I don’t go to movies, I don’t watch television, I don’t own a cell phone or a VCR or a DVD player or a computer. I continue to live in the Age of the Typewriter and have no idea what the World Wide Web is. I no longer bother to vote. I write for most of the day and often into the night. I read, mainly the books that I first discovered as a student, the masterpieces of fiction whose power over me is no less, and in some cases greater, than it was in my initial exciting encounters with them. . . . I don’t give readings or lectures or teach at a college or appear on TV. When my books are published, I keep to myself. I write every day of the week—otherwise I’m silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all—isn’t the work all I need, the work and the working? What does it matter any longer if I’m incontinent and impotent?
The parallel in the book is to Rip van Winkle, coming down from his mountaintop to find out what all the fuss is about this George W. Bush and his reelection. Zuckerman reenters life on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, and one crouches, awaiting the political description and analysis and eloquent anger to come forth, especially since The Plot Against America felt like such a power-kick to the current Bush administration—no matter how you sliced it interpretively. But it’s here where problems start to arise. The novel’s seemingly timely setting actually dies on the vine and doesn’t bring forth any particularly astute political commentary. Jamie and Billy, as well as Kliman, are of course outraged by Bush but it feels thin somehow. In particular, Jamie, who comes from an oil-rich Texas family, is outraged, but not interestingly outraged—not movingly outraged. Between her posh background and her current Upper West Side digs, she’s like a cliché born and bred from another cliché. In fact, it would have been more interesting if Zuckerman had pondered how her upbringing fostered and/or enabled her entry into a station of such privileged outrage, rather than how fetching she looked in her sweater, but that would be a different kind of book.
Then, there is the problem of the incest. While the reader sympathizes with Zuckerman that Lonoff’s life should not be vandalized this way in the name of “resurrecting” his name, the fact that the incest question—did it happen or not and how does it matter?—is never adequately answered poses problems for how it functions in the story. It’s basically a big red herring. But as a red herring it’s given the paradoxical position of being, morally speaking, not important, and, as a MacGuffin within the novel, quite important. We might be better people for not knowing whether the affair actually happened, but the novel is not. The affair becomes a sinkhole of meaning. One feels that the novel would be determinedly braver if Zuckerman was given incontrovertible evidence of Lonoff’s incest and still argued for the sanctity of his privacy. But with sweaty Kliman always across the table, the argument is already heavily weighted in Zuckerman’s favor.
And, like other recent Roth novels, Exit Ghost ends too easily, or rather, the novel ends just when things get really interesting. It’s as if Roth only bothers with articulating a problem very well—the predicament of the aging writer realizing the powerlessness he’ll have over his own name after he dies—but not with pushing his characters through that problem. It’s similar to the problem of The Plot Against America, where the nation and little Philip’s family is brought to the height of tension, and then the source of that tension, President Charles Lindbergh, literally flies off into the fog. Or as in Everyman, where the completely and totally secular protagonist, whose life is given to us only through the prism of his illnesses, nevertheless ends the novel talking to his dead parents at the family burial plot, and what’s more, they talk back. Even an overwhelmingly secular bleakness cannot overcome nostalgia, it seems. Or, nostalgia consecrates its own deities.
It seems that in each of these late novels, Roth is running headlong toward an abyss but pulls up short just before plunging himself and his characters over the edge. And I desperately want him to jump over the edge.
The Abyss: It’s strange to wonder when a writer will die, to wonder what death will mean for his oeuvre. Not to be morbid, or invasive, but Roth has worked at such a fever pitch in the past ten years—years that typically might be reserved for windy speeches and back-slapping and cocktails—that one wonders which novel will be the final, definitive statement. Knowing that this novel is the purported last Zuckerman novel and that, as in Nabokov’s oeuvre, Roth’s books fit so well inside and up against each other, Exit Ghost “feels” like a last novel. (Of course, with his creative virility, there could be many more.) No matter what half-finished manuscripts are still lying about, whatever basement tapes are there to be found, one still wants a definitive shelf’s worth of books, the statements that were articulated fully, with full consciousness and control.
Because Exit Ghost partakes of Roth’s two types of self-consciousness—again like The Counterlife, where there is also concern about what will happen to a writer’s work after he’s gone—the novel feels, aesthetically, like the correct place to stop. (I realize that this—a reader pontificating on where Roth should stop writing—is critical hubris, but if the Zuckerman books have proven anything it’s that readers will do anything, will succumb to any interpretation; they are as unstoppable as cancer.) In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman tries and fails to reenter the sexual and social battlefield. His made-up life—his manufactured isolation in the woods, his He and She play—has collided with the commerce of society, and the interior life he can somewhat control and the exterior life that he decidedly cannot control have proven insoluble.
And so one wonders, with the End of Zuckerman before us (if not the End of Roth), what has he left us with? I would say that Roth has left us with our own—as readers, as writers—insoluble problem.
Although the first Zuckerman trilogy is routinely discussed in terms of how it relates to Roth’s own famous publication of Portnoy’s Complaint and its subsequent aftershocks, the metafictional aspects of the second trilogy are hardly ever mentioned. Instead, most of the praise Roth receives for American Pastoral feels like either praise for the perceived politics of the book or praise for the fact that Roth was acting more like Updike by eschewing those annoying metafictional games.
But actually, in Pastoral Roth becomes quietly metafictional, because here the emphasis is not purely on what happens within the novel but what the novelist-narrator thinks happened. Each book in the second trilogy partakes of this—Pastoral through Zuckerman’s imagined history of the Swede; the tag team recreation of the McCarthy past by Murray Ringold and Zuckerman in I Married a Communist; and Zuckerman’s recreation of Coleman Silk’s death in The Human Stain. In each book, the novelist is presented with material that he then self-consciously turns into a story. The story, he says, is not about him. He’s “had” his story and so he tells someone else’s story, but the real story of the story is how he tells the story.
The result is an interesting narrative freedom, careening between “fact” and “fiction,” the narrator falling in and out of impersonation. In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air a few years back, Roth described this technique:
Gross: What narrative problems do you solve by having Zuckerman be the narrator [of The Human Stain]?
Roth: Well, the biggest problem I solve is nothing stands between me and my spontaneous reaction to the material. That is, it’s not such a cunning, strategic process. What you’re trying to do is find your freedom as a writer . . . [a way to] maximally deploy your powers, and I just feel that this is a way I can maximally deploy my powers. By this point in my career, I should be able to spontaneously land on that voice which will give me the most verbal freedom, imaginative freedom, and that’s what Zuckerman does for me.
But one wonders if this freedom of novelistic point of view is ultimately such a good thing for fiction. You could argue that his more tightly controlled novels in terms of point of view—The Dying Animal or The Plot Against America—were also more successful. Though both novels have their own problems, they get their main energy from the restrictions put on them by their narrative devices—in the first by Kepesh’s long monologue given to a (mostly) silent listener, in the second by restricting the POV character to the 9-year-old Philip.
And interestingly, by pursuing this ultimate narrative freedom, Roth has simultaneously regained the mantle of the omniscient narrator via his novelist-narrator, which provides an interesting fix for a contemporary problem, hinted at the beginning of this essay. The loss of literature’s omniscient narrator to the compulsively unreliable narrator mirrors the collapse of the mythic hero as a character, and it also mirrors the overall fracturing and slow dissolve of authority throughout our broader culture. So now, when a writer tries that type of old-style omniscient “simple” storytelling, it feels fake. It’s an affectation.
But in this second trilogy, Roth has it both ways. He gets the privileges of omniscience while still being trapped within the self that creates, the author as hero. He’s attempting to regain the old authority to tell you the truth about something outside himself—to transcend his self—while still making that judgment from the debased platform of the self, the contemporary novel’s remaining stage. For all my misgivings about American Pastoral, which feels to me too much like notes toward a novel than a fully inhabited one, the Swede is the closest to a hero-as-Greek-god that we’ve seen in a while.
But still, nine books later, a question arises—where does the novel go from here, after this collapse? After writers have focused on themselves as characters and have focused on their own means and methods of production, what comes next? Where is the exit from self-consciousness? How does one return to a state of innocence and ignorance—as a novelist, as a reader?
This is perhaps the real abyss Roth has led us to, and left us with—stranded in a deep crevasse of self-consciousness. Perhaps, like Jamie Logan, we might want to escape into the pastoral, but can’t. It would just be another affectation, a copying, like Zuckerman becoming his own sequel to Lonoff’s original isolation, himself just another parody of Thoreau. Do we instead—as readers, as writers—remain in Manhattan, where the novelist and the novel inhale their own self-importance?
But neither of these—pastoral isolation and ignorance or urbane knowingness and paranoia—offers a satisfactory, replenishing, original solution. It’s as if Roth has illuminated the crevasse so well that now we can see only one thing: there’s no way out.
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