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 …