At the beginning of Philip Roth’s 1979 novella The Ghost Writer, the twenty-three-year-old narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, tremulously approaches the secluded New England home of a famous but reclusive Jewish writer, E.I. Lonoff. Of this Lonoff we are told that he has long ago forsaken his urban, immigrant roots—the cultural soil from which, we are meant to understand, his vaguely Bashevis Singeresque fiction sprang—for “a clapboard farmhouse…at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires.” Long out of circulation, he is considered comical by New York literary people for having “lived all these years ‘in the country’—that is to say, in the goyish wilderness of birds and trees where America began and long ago had ended.” Still, young Nathan, an aspiring novelist, admires Lonoff extravagantly, not only because of “the tenacity that had kept him writing his own kind of stories all that time,” but because
having been “discovered” and popularized, he refused all awards and degrees, declined membership in all honorary institutions, granted no public interviews, and chose not to be photographed, as though to associate his face with his fiction were a ridiculous irrelevancy.
A young man’s admiration; a young man’s perhaps self-congratulatory idealization of a figure who, it is all too clear, he would like one day to be.
If, thirty years ago, readers felt safe in identifying the ingenuous, ambitious, hugely talented Newark-born Nathan Zuckerman with his creator, anyone familiar with Roth’s recent biography will find it difficult not to identify the author today with Lonoff. Like the fictional writer, Roth is a novelist whose work is profoundly rooted in Jewishness (however much Jewishness may be questioned, berated, and rejected in it); like Lonoff, Roth has ended up living “in the country”—not far from the Berkshires, in fact (whence the elderly, ailing Nathan Zuckerman also eventually repairs, in a much later novel); as with Lonoff, the recent biography suggests an aversion, if not to honors and awards (of which Roth has many), then to the whirl of New York literary life, to the ridiculously irrelevant ephemera of being a major figure in the culture. A recent profile of Roth in The New York Times, timed to coincide with the publication this month of the short novel Everyman, his twenty-seventh book, makes a point of noting that the new book is one of the rare ones in which Roth has permitted an author photograph to appear.
And as with Lonoff, there is a sense of the literary lion become, suddenly, the lion in winter. There is, to my mind, a kind of caesura in the Roth corpus that falls exactly in the middle of the 1990s. The first half of the decade saw the publication of two novels that, between them, embody the major themes of Roth’s work. In 1993 Roth published the dazzling Operation Shylock, a brilliant parable about the meaning of identities Jewish, artistic, and cultural: in it, the narrator, ostensibly Roth himself, sets out to find and confront a Philip Roth impersonator who is also a prophet of something called “Diasporism,” an ideology promoting the return of Israelis to their European countries of origin. (All this, to raise the stakes even higher, is set against the trial of the concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk, charged with being Ivan the Terrible, “the butcher of Treblinka.”) The connection between eros and art, always a crucial one in Roth’s fictional world, was subsequently explored, with equally outré gusto, in Sabbath’s Theater(1995), whose protagonist is a one-time puppeteer and self-described “dirty old man.” The former book won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the latter, the National Book Award for fiction.
Since then—starting in 1997, when Roth, then in his mid-sixties, published his Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral (the first installment of a nostalgic trilogy largely about the failure of the American Dream which also included I Married a Communist, a look back at the Fifties, and The Human Stain,in part a sour indictment of political correctness)—the roiling, libidinous energies and aggressive intellectual dazzle of what could be described as Roth’s middle period, the period that culminated in Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater, have yielded more and more to a distinctly elegiac mode. It’s not that the books necessarily have any less vivacity, any less imaginative brilliance (the latter amply demonstrated by the publication, in 2004, of his counterhistorical Nazified America fantasy The Plot Against America); it’s merely that they seem, suddenly, to be written by someone who’s closer to the periphery than to the center of things, who’s looking back in resignation, or anger, or both.
However vivid its depiction of the tumult of Sixties political fervor, the dominant note sounded in American Pastoral was one of idealized nostalgia—hardly untypical for this author—of the Depression-era work ethos recalled from his childhood, the ethos that was frayed during the decade the novel depicts. Similarly, in The Human Stain there was a tension between grouchy disdain for the novel’s present-day fictional setting (politically correct academia, circa 1990) and a golden-toned reverie about the solid values of the past—in this case, the values of an aspiring black railway porter, father to the protagonist, values that have been upended and mocked by the sanctimoniousness of the present.
It occurred to you, as you read these novels and those that followed—particularly The Dying Animal (2001), which finds a recurrent Roth hero, the libidinous cultural critic David Kepesh, “nearing death” and, even worse, appalled to realize that the voluptuous Cuban-American student with whom he carries on an obsessive affair is mortal, too—that they were the work of an author facing his seventies. An autumnal frost had set in.
Roth himself has been outspoken, of late, about his preoccupation with death. In the Times profile he talked at length about the “gigantic shock” of finding himself at an age when his friends are dying, it would seem, en masse (in the book, he indeed describes old age as a “massacre”):
“This book came out of what was all around me, which was something I never expected—that my friends would die,” Mr. Roth said. “If you’re lucky, your grandparents will die when you’re, say, in college. Mine died when I was a schoolboy. If you’re lucky, your parents will live until you’re somewhere in your 50’s; if you’re very lucky, into your 60’s. You won’t ever die, and your children, certainly, will never die before you. That’s the deal, that’s the contract. But in this contract nothing is written about your friends, so when they start dying, it’s a gigantic shock.”*
That the subject is one of great urgency to the author just now is made clear by the fact that this heartfelt sentiment closely echoes a passage from The Dying Animal:
The loveliest fairy tale of childhood is that everything happens in order. Your grandparents go long before your parents, and your parents go long before you. If you’re lucky it can work out that way, people aging and dying in order, so that at the funeral you ease your pain by thinking that the person had a long life. It hardly makes extinction less monstrous, that thought, but it’s the trick that we use to keep the metronomic illusion intact and the time torture at bay: “So-and-so lived a long time.” But Consuela had not been lucky….
The repetition is oddly moving—as of someone dazed by a sudden blow, walking around in circles. According to the Times profile, the worst of the blows suffered by Roth was the death of his old friend and mentor, Saul Bellow. The author disclosed that it was on the day after Bellow’s burial that he sat down to write something that would, more directly than any of its predecessors, confront the specter of death itself—as the new book’s title, with its allusion to the medieval morality play about a visit by Death to a nameless “everyman,” makes clear. “I’d just come from a cemetery,” Roth said, “and that got me going.”
“Got me going” can, of course, mean “started me on my way”; but it can also mean “worked me into a frenzy.” The latter, I suspect, is the more apt here. For although what we know of Roth and how he came to write Everyman promises that here is a book in which we will get to witness a great novelist facing, head-on, the great subject, the book itself is surprisingly thin—in every way. This is not to say it lacks intensity: every page of this account of an ordinary man’s physical disintegration and eventual death bears witness to a bitter outrage, constantly reiterated in that same dazed way, against the simple but devastating fact that the body, eventually, fails—that, in time, people’s “personal biographies…become identical with their medical biographies.” But although the bitterness is a sentiment few would argue with, it is not clear that this powerful emotion has translated here into a powerful work of fiction.
Like the late medieval work with which it shares its title, Everyman proceeds episodically. In the play, the ordinary mortal, referred to simply as Everyman, is called to account for his life before the seat of Judgment. There he finds that he has been abandoned by Fellowship, Kindred, and Goods in rapid and rather depressing succession; but he is saved, in the end, by the intervention of Good Deeds, Knowledge, Confession, Discretion, and so on. The drama, unsurprisingly, ennobles the abandonment of material goods and ephemeral ties (friends, family) in favor of more abstract, spiritual values.
The ruthless, almost sadistic stripping away of material goods and common pleasures, at any rate, is replicated in Roth’s book. Everyman self-consciously seeks to rewrite the pre-modern dramatization of a stark and terrifying confrontation with Death but without the moralizing and Christianizing—which is to say, the comforting and redeeming—elements. “It’s told from the Christian perspective, which I don’t share,” Roth remarked while explaining how he came to write the book; “it’s an allegory, a genre I find unpalatable; it’s didactic in tone, which I can’t stand.”
Still, like its medieval model, this tale begins with the demise of its hero—in this case, a thrice-divorced retired advertising executive—and thereafter seeks to account for his life in a series of scenes from the dead man’s past, episodically presented. But because of its relentless rejection of spiritual abstractions and its compensatory emphasis on the failure of the corporeal self, these vignettes, in Roth’s Everyman, are in every case connected to either a medical crisis or a funeral. Hence, for instance, a narrative of the hero’s early childhood is pinned to a description of a hernia operation he had at the age of nine; the collapse of his second marriage is pegged to his mother’s death; and so on.
The structural relationship between everything that happens in the book and scenes of illness, hospital stays, medical procedures, and deaths is meant to underscore a glumly reductive theme:
Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his…. It’s the commonness that’s most wrenching, the registering once more of the fact of death that overwhelms everything.
And indeed, to underscore the universality of his subject, the author presents us with an ostensibly common person: his hero, never named, is all too clearly meant to be generic. We’re told, for instance, that he always thought he was “square,” that “he never thought of himself as anything more than an average human being.”
It must be said that the pose of ordinariness, crucial to Roth’s intentions, is none too persuasive, not least because, try as he might to be ordinary, the hero of this book inevitably starts to sound as interestingly tormented and complex as are the heroes of Roth’s other books. This everyman is, like so many of the men you meet in Roth’s novels, a talented Jewish boy from the Newark area who enjoyed an idyllic childhood complete with a revered brother and hardworking parents who, themselves the children of immigrants, embody the thrifty American values of the Depression era. As often in Roth’s fiction, the father in particular is idealized and heroized; what tenderness there is here—and there isn’t much—is, unsurprisingly, reserved for the hero’s father, the owner of a jewelry store in Elizabeth called Everyman’s Jewelry Store.
This protagonist is, also like those others, a man who struggles, on the whole unsuccessfully, to balance a strong libido with the demands of family connections. Particularly vexed are his relationships with his two sons (one of whom is moved by his emotions, at his father’s funeral, to an intense physical reaction almost like regurgitation—a recapitulation of a connection between filial emotion and vomiting that appears as well in The Dying Animal). There is the usual collection of females: vaguely nice mothers, somehow never as sharply etched as the fathers; ex-wives who are inept or grasping or inappropriate or, as one is here, appreciated by her wayward husband only after the marriage has ended. And there is, too, an encounter with a tiny, young, frizzy-haired sexpot who ends by humiliating the hero—a female type, and a scene that we have encountered before in Roth’s fiction. The one successful relationship this well-heeled New Jersey Jewish everyman has is with his daughter by the worthy second wife, but there’s something sketchy and abstract about the way this relationship is drawn—you feel it’s there primarily for the sake of a tenuous allusion to King Lear, a father who also has three children, only one of whom is “good.”
There are, indeed, so many ghostly reincarnations in this book of earlier characters that it occurred to me at one point that the title might have been meant as a kind of inside joke: for just as Everyman replays its hero’s life, it seems, too, to replay quite self-consciously motifs and characters from Roth’s other works, and its pages sometimes seem like a rather hastily assembled waxworks display of Characters from the Novels of Philip Roth.
The familiar vividness, if not the uniqueness, of the characters in Everyman ends up being a problem. Little of what we know about this everyman comes across as generic or “average”; that the character feels oddly unfinished is surely the result of a struggle between the author’s desire to write about an everyman and his natural talent for creating a certain kind of seethingly interesting male character. The occasional tirades about, say, people who dote on their grandchildren—a sentiment surely more prevalent than not among the population of real-life everymen—feel odd coming from the mouth of a supposedly average person. (Other fraught asides, characterized by a kind of elegiac exhaustion, for instance one about the “corpse-strewn anni horribilies that will blacken the memory of the twentieth century,” are equally inorganic.) The result is a character whose component parts seem somehow fragmented, unintegrated.
One’s sense of authorial overdetermination—that certain elements here too effortfully serve a preordained theme—persists in another way. From that hernia operation in 1942, when he is nine (the character, like the author, was born in 1933) to his final cardiac arrest, Roth’s everyman strikes the reader as a person who seems, if anything, to have enjoyed bizarrely poor health throughout his life. First the childhood surgery, then, in his thirties, a near-fatal brush with peritonitis following a ruptured appendix; then the onset of heart ailments, the quintuple bypass surgery, followed by the arterial cleanings, the stents, the defibrillators, and so on. A typical passage looks like this:
The year after the three stents he was briefly knocked out on an operating table while a defibrillator was permanently inserted as a safeguard against the new development that endangered his life and that along with the scarring at the posterior wall of his heart and his borderline ejection fraction made him a candidate for a fatal cardiac arrhythmia. The defibrillator was a thin metal box about the size of a cigarette lighter; it was lodged beneath the skin of his upper chest, a few inches from his left shoulder, with its wire leads attached to his vulnerable heart, ready to administer a shock to correct his heartbeat—and confuse death—if it became perilously irregular.
It’s as if, in order to hammer home his theme that each of us is, ultimately, nothing more than a body that fails, the author has abused this one fictional body to unlikely—or at the very least, unusual—extremes. Extremes of physical failure as debilitating, that is to say, as are the extremes of the emotional failure to which we are told this supposedly “average” man has doomed himself. Even the good daughter, with whom at the end of his life he dreams of living, ends up living with her mother instead. At the end of his life, this man is utterly, if improbably, alone.
Roth is so eager to leave his allegedly average hero with nothing to hold on to by the end of his story—no body, no family—because his mission here is reductive in every sense of the word: for him, we’re nothing but bodies, in the end, and we know what happens to those. (At one point the hero sourly declares that if he were to write an autobiography, it would be called The Life and Death of a Male Body.) The final third of the book is little more than a catalog of health crises, both the hero’s and his friends’: in rapid succession, you hear about the dreadful demises or debilitations of three of his former colleagues and the nice ex-wife. The relentless (and, it must be said, ultimately numbing) repetition again suggests a wounded outrage on the part of the author—and yet the character is so undefined that the awful departures of his one-time wives, relations, and friends (of “Kindred,” that is to say, and “Fellowship”) carry little emotional weight.
A closing and climactic confrontation with a gravedigger—Lear has been abandoned for Hamlet here—places great emphasis on the hero’s desire for the comfort not of intangible abstractions but of “concreteness”: knowing how a grave is dug, knowing what happens down there. The opposition between concreteness and abstraction (and, naturally, between everything those two could be expected to stand for in a novel: the material and the spiritual, the body and the soul, the profane and the sacred) informs a suggestive if underdeveloped subplot, a passage of a few pages that hints at how interesting this book might have been if it had told us more.
In his retirement, the hero, a skilled amateur painter, decides to teach an art course in the retirement community, located on the Jersey Shore, to which he’s moved. Here, his overeager but naive students dream of painting glorious abstract paintings—a genre in which he himself is skilled, we learn, although he eventually abandons it, having lost confidence in his talent—and resent the still lifes he requires them to paint. “I don’t want to do flowers or fruit,” a student says, “I want to do abstraction like yours.” (It’s hard here not to recall the French term for still life: nature morte, “dead nature.”)
To such students our everyman approvingly repeats a remark made by the painter Chuck Close, that “amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” As if to drive home the notion that only concrete objects and solid values—flowers, fruit, hard work—matter in the end, we learn that the one pupil who has any talent ends up killing herself, unable to cope with her chronic back pain—something that isn’t abstract at all. So much, it would seem, for the triumph of art over life.
The pervasive, strangely intense, almost angry insistence that the abstractions with which we normally comfort ourselves—emotional, spiritual, artistic—amount to little in the face of our common and none-too-pleasant fate, which is the bitter failure of the flesh of which we are made, flies, of course, in the face of the redemptive action of that other, antique drama called Everyman. In Roth’s book the hero is someone who “put no stock in an afterlife and knew without a doubt that God was a fiction and this was the only life he’d have,” and so is left, at the end, with nothing but bones, which as he sees it is all that survives of us in the end. “The flesh melts away but the bones endure,” he thinks during a final visit to the graves of his parents, with whom he carries on a moving silent conversation:
His mother had died at eighty, his father at ninety. Aloud he said to them, “I’m seventy-one. Your boy is seventy-one.” “Good. You lived,” his mother replied, and his father said, “Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left.”
He couldn’t go. The tenderness was out of control. As was the longing for everyone to be living. And to have it all all over again.
That this flare-up of emotional intensity is directed at what the character knows to be nothing more than hard, white bones is no accident: throughout the book he has yearned for something that is truly concrete, something that will last. “Imperishable,” indeed, is a word we’re told he loves. At one point he asks his Danish mistress, soon to become the disastrous third wife, to translate it into her native tongue; more significantly, we learn that his father loved using that very word of the small diamonds he once sold to his working-class clientele. “A piece of the earth that is imperishable, and a mere mortal is wearing it on her hand!” The contrast between the mortal and the immortal, the perishable flesh and the imperishable piece of earth, which recurs with greatest effect in the cemetery scene, is meant to be a poignant one.
But in the end, Roth’s relentless reduction of his hero to nothing but failed relationships and failed flesh doesn’t move—and worse, doesn’t persuade. For all the novel’s intensity—and despite the chillingly clinical descriptions of what happens when “eluding death” becomes the “central business” of one’s life—you don’t really believe it. The fact that Roth’s anonymous hero ends up “lost in nothing” both emotionally and, finally, physically says more about the way this particular narrative has been manipulated, and about the author’s bitterness about mortality just now, than it does about the condition of being a human being. The vast preponderance of evidence, after all, suggests that in the face of death people do, in fact, cling happily and successfully to the familiar abstractions—love, family, art, religion. The Dying Animal claimed to look death in the face, but wriggled out of the confrontation: its aging-satyr hero was saved while his voluptuous young mistress got breast cancer. (Another victory for the boys.) Everyman claims to look death in the face as well, but, by concentrating too narrowly, only on the physical, only on the materiality of our passage from life, he ends up drawing an equally unfinished picture of what it’s like when Death comes calling.
And indeed, just as his allegedly ordinary hero can’t help being a vividly Rothian type, it’s hard not to see, creeping into Roth’s annihilating pessimism here, an irrepressible sentimentality. What, after all, does it mean to commune with the bones of one’s parents in a cemetery—a communication that involves not only the hero talking to them, but them talking back—if not that we like to believe in transcendence, believe that there is, in fact, something more to our experience than just the concrete, just the bones, just the bits of earth? If the scene is moving, I suspect it’s because of the nakedness with which it exposes a regressive fantasy that seems to belong to the author as much as to his main character: once again, Roth reserves his best writing and profoundest emotion for the character’s relationship with his parents. This reversion to the emotional comforts of childhood seems to me to be connected to the deep nostalgia that characterizes this latest period of Roth’s writing (it’s at the core of The Plot Against America, too); it also seems to be something that Roth himself is aware of, and which, in a moment that is moving in ways he might not have intended, his everyman articulates. “But how much time could a man spend remembering the best of boyhood?” he muses during a sentimental trip to the New Jersey shore town he visited as a boy. It’s a question some readers may be tempted to ask, too.
As it happens, the culminating scene in the graveyard also recalls a sentiment—a redemptive one—expressed in the original Everyman. There, in a triumphant concluding passage, Knowledge suggests that out of death can come beauty—and art. “Now hath he made ending. Methinketh that I hear angels sing, and make great joy and melody….” Roth’s new book, as imperfect as it is impassioned, spends a lot of time arguing violently against such sentimentality, such aesthetic abstraction; but ends up suggesting in spite of itself that, whatever else is true, it’s the ending that everyone, himself included, prefers.
Charles McGrath, “Roth, Haunted by Illness, Feels Fine,” The New York Times, April 25, 2006. ↩