So the Zuckerman saga has ended, with no soaring chords of elegy and not a single consoling hint that though our hero looks set to fade away, his legacy will carry on. It’s no surprise that Philip Roth would take such care not to be sentimental, at least not in the usual ways. Yet it was impossible beforehand to imagine how he would handle the finale. That it was so is a credit to the freedom, sometimes out of old habit called outrageous or brash but in practice often shrewd and elusive, that Roth has insisted on over five decades of writing fiction, and nearly three decades of writing Zuckerman.
Exit Ghost brings to a total of nine the novels in which Roth has followed this writer, so conspicuously like but so adamantly not himself. Looking back, much of the journey’s freshness, apart from the humor and the passionately pursued themes, stems from its seeming highly controlled from moment to moment but never too formally neat or planned ahead. It’s been a string of linked but distinct performances; Zuckerman’s internal character has stayed consistent, but his self—his character not in stillness and isolation but in response to changing times and circumstance and the bitter residue of experience—has had to jolt along, discontinuously.
Early on Roth mines his ambitious, overeager young literary aspirant for comedy and musing about literature. Later we get the rich and doubt-wracked forty-year-old version, nearly undone by physical pain. Paranoiacs, ideologues, and even some justifiably angry people have drawn him into entertaining combat, their grievances evolving over the years. In the eerily moving meditation in The Counterlife on the writer’s process of imagining, Zuckerman even briefly appears to have dropped dead. Indeed, nearly as far back as two decades ago, Roth’s reliance on this sort of proxy—this navigator of literary fame, lightning rod for accusations, delighter in sex, and accepter of the guilty destiny of a writer to use people—was already so long, incident-filled, plainly divergent from his real life yet symbolically tangled up with it that in his memoir The Facts he could append to his own account a brutal critique written by none other than Zuckerman:
Dear Roth, I’ve read the manuscript twice. Here is the candor you ask for: Don’t publish—you are far better off writing about me than “accurately” reporting your own life. Could it be that you’ve turned yourself into a subject not only because you’re tired of me but because you believe I am no longer someone through whom you can detach yourself from your biography at the same time that you exploit its crises, themes, tensions, and surprises? Well, on the evidence of what I’ve just read, I’d say you’re still as much in need of me as I of you—and that I need you is indisputable. For me to speak of “my” anything would be ridiculous, however much there has been established in me the illusion of an independent existence. I owe everything to you, while you, however, owe me nothing less than the freedom to write freely. I am your permission, your indiscretion, the key to disclosure. I understand that now as I never did before.
Zuckerman is right by the late 1980s to sense a restlessness in his creator, and an approaching shift in the relationship. As an alter ego—though not quite right, the word is the best available shorthand—buffeted by stormy life, Zuckerman has already given much of what he has to give. As a kind of alter writer, though, Roth can still put him to productive use. For long sections in American Pastoral and The Human Stain, two of the three novels that after publication came to be known as Roth’s American Trilogy, Zuckerman will tend to stand more on the sidelines of the main tale. By now, he’s found his way around the distractions of fame. Occasionally he might pass through New York, but mostly he keeps up the daily discipline of his craft in sheltered solitude in the Berkshires, revisiting youthful memories or tracing out the intrigues of some acquaintance whose travails catch his sympathy and interest. He’s stirred to action now mostly through narrating the actions of others. Backdrop themes in postwar American history are framed in these novels more explicitly, grandly, and often tragically for the reader, while his private life has quieted down, no longer the main attraction.
In an interview in The New York Times, Roth described how useful Zuckerman’s trove of old Newark lore proved to the writing of American Pastoral. The novel traces the destruction of the Levov family—especially of Swede Levov, the physically blessed, diligent, and poignantly trusting all-American Jewish hero felled by the 1960s rage of his daughter. This was a story Roth had long been trying to write, and stumbling over:
That’s how the Swede became everything to me, and how I came to present him—as I hadn’t the first time around—as though Zuckerman had known him as a boyhood idol. Zuckerman was my insider, my knowledgeable wedge into the Swede’s life, who somehow gave me the freedom to know him.
To this explanation Roth adds immediately and somewhat startlingly that “on page 90 I jettisoned Zuckerman—he was no longer necessary.”
The quote gets at an ambiguity, refracting on itself like a house of mirrors, that to my mind has lingered around some of Zuckerman’s recent appearances (more around American Pastoral and The Human Stain than I Married a Communist, which narrates a higher proportion of witnessed events). Before, as readers we were able to observe Zuckerman in action, provoking reactions in others, sometimes running up against the limits to his vision. Now we were more in the hands of Zuckerman the observer, the rememberer—the imagining writer. When the novels came out they were celebrated as marking a new, ambitious, more history-minded phase for Roth. Yet the mediating intelligence seemed to be Zuckerman’s, and so may have been the dark pronouncements on American history—designed and executed by Roth, but as Roth has always begged us to keep in mind, are not Roth and Zuckerman anything but one and the same? Is there daylight between Zuckerman’s feelings about the doom of postwar-consensus America and Roth’s? What in American Pastoral would, in Zuckerman’s (fictional) universe, register as more or less fact, and what, before it even reached us on the page, has been transformed in the narrator’s speculating imagination from a kernel of incident into what we receive as the “story” of Swede Levov?
To try to answer these questions would be fruitless—and too literal-minded for literature, as Roth would surely point out. Still it’s worth stopping to note this new phase for Zuckerman, restricted in action and rather dimmed in personality, but imaginatively empowered. That there’s a tiny bit of point-of-view slippage going on here, that we can’t see the limits to Zuckerman’s vision as clearly as we sometimes could in earlier books, may account for the sweeping forward motion of these novels, which are among Roth’s most loved by readers. But the easing up of that old undercurrent of self-questioning also contributes to their aura of nostalgia.
Way back in The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman’s first full-blown appearance in fiction, Roth had set up a fork in the road between two writing sensibilities. Each approach had its potency and its hazards. In the novel a successful, midcareer Zuckerman looks back to the 1950s, and a formative weekend in his literary apprenticeship. He’s just out of college, already precociously publishing but itching to go further. He’s young enough that his head is still stuffed with high-minded 1950s orthodoxies about seriousness and irony. He’s thrilled to visit (in the same corner of the Berkshires where he’ll eventually wind up living) the author E.I. Lonoff, an uncompromisingly focused writer of Jewish-themed stories who went underappreciated for much of his career, but recently emerged as cultural hero to the era’s bookish young.
Lonoff is an artist of “renunciation,” the author of grim, knife-sharp comic parables about “thwarted, secretive, imprisoned souls.” Lonoff’s stoic drive to suppress temptation and subtract every extra beat is a marvel to Zuckerman. Yet it’s at Lonoff’s house that he discovers in himself a different imaginative impulse. Also staying over with Lonoff and Lonoff’s long-suffering and secretly enraged wife that night is an exotic, dark-haired waif of a student with huge eyes and a light foreign accent. After dinner and drinking Zuckerman lingers in Lonoff’s study, worries over his father’s offended reaction to a story, masturbates, reads Henry James to atone for his guilt, and eventually eavesdrops on Lonoff and the girl, named Amy Bellette, talking to each other. He gathers that they’re lovers.
The writer in him aches to compete with the scene he has just spied on. And so the mysterious girl’s presence in the house incites him to a transgressive fantasy—one of the iconic Roth scenes. He dares to imagine, then embroider and extend, a possible reality in which Amy might be none other than Anne Frank—somehow having escaped her fate and living in America, happy and healthy, with an off-kilter sexual allure. Zuckerman’s inviting such an incomparably tragic figure into his flight of fancy is brazen, and presented as such. But it’s also a liberating gesture, a writer’s pushback in defense of the imagination—as Zuckerman himself now explains in Exit Ghost: at this nervous moment in his early career, when critics were starting to comb through his stories for signs of Jewish disloyalty, it was “my fictional fortification against the excoriating indictment.” The amplification of reality is to Zuckerman one of literature’s great consolations, and the will to amplify a mark of human vitality.
Consciously, referentially, Exit Ghost revisits nearly every issue raised right at the launch of Zuckerman’s career in The Ghost Writer. Vital youth challenges tired age, now represented by Zuckerman. The impulse to renounce life battles the will to stay standing in the thick of it. The past hangs over every page, though frighteningly to Zuckerman it no longer seems of any consequence. Compared to some of Roth’s recent work, the nostalgia here is not quite sentimental. Though it takes its occasional flight of fancy—and its subject in a way is grief over not being able to take more—this is more a work of literary subtraction than of amplitude.
The novel—almost short and tonally spare enough to be a novella—opens in late October 2004. For eleven years now Zuckerman has been working on his mountaintop, looking out his window to the bird refuge across the road. He’s pursued his calling with the dry ritual dedication and, shockingly, given his wife-and-mistress-filled history, the sexless dedication of a monk. In this he would seem to have flouted the warning issued long ago by Lonoff, a more natural ascetic. Young Zuckerman, Lonoff advised in The Ghost Writer, must take good care of his work’s most distinctive trait, its “turbulence—that should be nourished, and not in the woods.” But Zuckerman’s life changed after he survived the cancer he first told us about in American Pastoral. The successful operation for it rendered him impotent and incontinent years ago; and for all his devotion to the cause of literature his work ethic seems in no small degree a crutch against grief and shame.