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Axler’s Theater

The Humbling

by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 140 pp., $22.00
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Dominique Nabokov
Philip Roth, Connecticut, 1979

One of the rare funny moments in Philip Roth’s recent novel Everyman (2006) takes place when the unnamed hero visits his parents’ graves in Newark. His health has been poor, his colleagues and friends have been dying, and though he has no reason to think that his own death is imminent, he can no longer pretend to himself that he will never die. In this frame of mind, he finds himself talking to the buried bones of his parents. “I’m seventy-one, your boy is seventy-one,” he tells them. In his mind, he hears his mother reply: “Good. You lived.”

This little joke describes a devastating situation: the hero has lived long enough that no one—not even, in his imagination, his own mother—could say that fate has cheated him if he were to die. Some of Roth’s novels of the last decade have described working-class Jewish New Jersey of the 1940s and 1950s (The Plot Against America, Indignation), while others are set in the present day, where the children of the World War II era find themselves growing old (Everyman, Exit Ghost, and now The Humbling). The historical novels are punctuated by the untimely deaths of boys and young men: in war, in the case of Marcus Messner in Indignation (2008), and in anti-Semitic riots in the case of Seldon Wishnow in The Plot Against America (2004).

Family life in the historical novels is dominated by the anxiety of the tender, hardworking parents for their children, an anxiety that at any moment might be turned to inconsolable grief. “Where are you, darling?” Messner’s mother asks every day of her life after his death. “Marcus, please, the door is unlocked, come home!” The boys who don’t die young end up living longer than they could really have imagined back in their youth—long enough to satisfy, in theory, even their anxious parents. They cannot reasonably be shocked if their bodies and nerves are more fragile than they used to be. But reason is of little help as their losses pile up.

The initial catastrophe for Simon Axler, the subject of Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, is that after decades of great success as a stage actor he suddenly finds that he can no longer perform in front of an audience. When the novel opens he has already had two unsuccessful back-to-back runs at the Kennedy Center, as Prospero and Macbeth. “He’d lost his magic,” the opening line tells us, and he contemplates suicide.

If the first shock to Axler was losing his actor’s instinct, the second shock is that in his private life his grief cannot ennoble him as it would on stage:

When you’re playing the role of somebody coming apart, it has organization and order; when you’re observing yourself coming apart, playing the role of your own demise, that’s something else, something awash with terror and fear.

Among all the twinned characters in Roth’s body of work there is no starker contrast than that between Axler and Roth’s other would-be suicide (and performer), Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theater (1995). Sabbath’s life too has turned to shit, but his howl of grief is driven—for hundreds of pages—by a great vital force that seems inextinguishable. With The Humbling, the scope of the novel has shrunk to accommodate a subject who is stunned nearly silent by his loss. Axler is an ordinary man and cannot turn his own grief into scathing and hilarious soliloquy, and therefore into art. And the art that Axler knows so well offers no consolation. He muses to himself about all the characters in dramatic literature who commit suicide: “He should set himself the task of rereading these plays. Yes, everything gruesome must be squarely faced. Nobody should be able to say that he did not think it through.”

That “everything gruesome must be squarely faced” is the subtext for Everyman and Exit Ghost (2007; the putative final volume of the Nathan Zuckerman books) as well as The Humbling. In each of these novels Roth strips his reclusive heroes of all of their sources of consolation—as if to echo, or compulsively repeat, the physical losses they incur as they get older. Readers know that if a kindly neighbor befriends one of these late-Roth characters and draws him out of his self-imposed isolation, that neighbor will be dead by the end of the book. And the Roth characters outlive not only their friends and family, but their talent, their sex drive, their very interest in life. There is, it turns out, an improbably long catalog of things that you can outlive, and after all those disappointments you also have to die. Exit Ghost reveals Zuckerman to have Alzheimer’s, and the hero of Everyman, after years of deteriorating health, dies during surgery for a clogged artery. Zuckerman has no family or friends to support him during his illness. The Everyman has a loving daughter, but he nonetheless dies alone while his daughter is busy taking care of her sick mother.

Like them, Axler is also alone. His ineffectual wife left him when he first started having trouble with his acting. He has no children, no close family members, no friends that he sees on a regular basis, no local acquaintances, no faith, and no occupations other than acting. Suicide, for Axler, has come down to a matter of will—he won’t be leaving behind any devastated mourners or unfinished civic responsibility. He finds that he lacks the necessary will, instead checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, where he is offered paper and crayons for “art therapy” and his psychiatrist tries to tease out why this “universal nightmare” of being unable to perform on stage has befallen him at this moment. Axler cooperates as best he can with the infantilizing therapy, but he feels that the search for a psychological explanation is pointless:

Nothing has a good reason for happening,” he said to the doctor later that day. “You lose, you gain—it’s all caprice. The omnipotence of caprice. The likelihood of reversal. Yes, the unpredictable reversal and its power.”

As an example of such caprice, one night in the hospital Axler inexplicably gets a full night’s sleep and his depression ebbs; soon he returns home. But he finds he does not know how to make a life for himself without his work. He broods. He exercises the only form of power still available to him, that of refusal: he will not try again, will not risk any more failure. His embarrassment at the Kennedy Center might have been due to “the omnipotence of caprice,” but he has no faith that caprice will restore his powers—he insists vigorously on the finality of this particular reversal. A year after leaving the hospital he once again thinks regularly about suicide. He strongly identifies with an old sick possum that builds itself a nest on his property in which to die.

Into this grim scenario comes an unexpected visitor. Pegeen is the forty-year-old daughter of some friends of Axler’s. He hasn’t seen her since she was a college student. She has recently taken a job teaching environmental science at a college in Vermont, not too far from Axler’s house in upstate New York. She surprises him at his house one afternoon, makes him dinner, welcomes his kissing her, and ends up in bed with him. Before we even meet her, the narrator tells us that she’s a lesbian, and also that, in spite of this fact, she and Axler will have an affair.

Axler has never found it hard to attract women (they “did not realize that they had a story until he revealed to them that they had a story, a voice, and a style belonging to no other”), but he does wonder why an avowed life-long lesbian is drawn to him. He settles on a working explanation having to do with a long, difficult relationship Pegeen recently ended, in which her girlfriend decided to take male hormones and live as a man, a decision that Pegeen interpreted as a personal rejection that she needs somehow to avenge. (“If Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female.”) But even so, Axler cannot believe in the durability of Pegeen’s interest in him—he keeps thinking to himself that he should not get involved with her, that he is headed for a fall if he becomes attached.

Roth has said in a recent interview in The Wall Street Journal that he sees The Humbling as the third in a four-part series of novels, with Everyman, Indignation, and the forthcoming Nemesis, but it also has something notable in common with Exit Ghost. Both Zuckerman and Axler keep anticipating the outcome of their respective novels (so much so that the plot sputters), as if they are trying to stop the novel’s merciless progress with their forethought and their self-knowledge. Zuckerman insists every few pages that he does not have the emotional stamina for a return to the New York social whirl, while Axler can’t stop anticipating his break-up with Pegeen:

What is the draw of a woman like this to a man who is losing so much? Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other than who she was? Wasn’t he dressing her up in costume as though a costly skirt could dispose of nearly two decades of lived experience? Wasn’t he distorting her while telling himself a lie—and a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless? What if he proved to be no more than a brief male intrusion into a lesbian life?

A lesbian deciding to have an affair with a man—the premise would seem to offer Roth some good opportunities to needle and offend, evoking as it does the politically thorny question of the mutability of sexual desire, not to mention a leitmotif of straight male porn. Roth alludes to the porn element (“this was not soft porn,” Axler thinks as he watches Pegeen fuck another woman with a dildo), but The Humbling has little satirical energy, for there seems to be nothing in the world that Axler scorns or reviles. He lacks the perverse vigor of Mickey Sabbath, who ultimately could not kill himself because, as he declares in the famous last line, “everything he hated was here.” The mild stereotypes that fill out Pegeen’s sketchy background (she and her former girlfriend had two cats, she cheats on Axler with two young female softball players, she owns no clothes “that couldn’t be worn by a sixteen-year-old boy”) seem less provocative than superficial, as if Roth was eager to move on to the more urgent matter of Axler’s suffering.

Pegeen’s lesbianism is above all a crucial piece of the plot machinery that leads Axler from depression at the opening of the novel to even worse depression at the end. He knows that a relationship with a young woman is risky for him in his emotionally vulnerable state, all the more so if this woman is not even primarily interested in men. But Axler is human and alone—and he is not capable of turning her away. Though their affair is certainly sexual, Roth emphasizes the importance, to Axler, of her companionship and her care. The day she first comes to visit, she helps him to bandage a hand injury. “She’d also brought him a glass of water to drink. Nobody had brought him a glass of water for a long time.”

Axler’s humbling comes in many forms, and one of the most startling, for a reader of the Roth canon, is that it is not Axler’s sexual desire that is at the center of the novel, but Pegeen’s own. The novel’s suspense, and Axler’s very life, hangs on the question of whether Pegeen will continue to desire him. At first she avows only enthusiasm for their relationship. Later she confesses to having cheated on him twice. Thinking it will help him keep Pegeen, Axler suggests that they invite another woman to join them in a threesome. He finds a young woman in a local bar who has been getting drunk by herself while he and Pegeen have been having dinner in the next room. He brings Pegeen from the restaurant to have a look at her: “He could feel her trembling with excitement as she watched the girl drinking at the bar. Her trembling thrilled him. It was as though they had merged into one maniacally tempted being.”

A proxy for Axler’s desire, the agent of his demise—Pegeen is too thin a character to bear all this weight. In fact no character could. Roth aggrandizes her—she is an inhuman force, capricious and inscrutable like fate itself—and at the same time makes clear that she has done nothing special to deserve this role. She is an unremarkable person (unlike Axler), described mainly in negatives. “She’s not at all beautiful. She’s not that intelligent. And she’s not that grown up.” These words are spoken by a dean at the college where Pegeen teaches, a woman who briefly preceded Axler as Pegeen’s lover. An attractive and sympathetic figure with “a heroically statuesque aura” (the parallels to Axler are unmistakable), the dean is nonetheless so humiliated by Pegeen’s rejection that she is reduced to crank calling and stalking Axler’s house—which is how she and Axler meet. “It’s we who endow her with a power she doesn’t really have,” she says to him, “Pegeen’s nobody, you know.”

Indeed, so irrational and helpless is Axler’s need for Pegeen that to him, her particular qualities seem almost beside the point. He has only vague intimations of what she might be thinking or feeling. But the book itself indulges Axler’s narcissism too thoroughly, shrugging off the demands of plausibility. Roth nearly acknowledges as much when Tracy, the woman at the bar, enters the novel. Axler and Pegeen offer Tracy a ride home, which, surprisingly, she accepts despite the fact that they’re strangers. Even more surprisingly, she remains perfectly calm when, instead of taking her home, they take her to Axler’s house and have sex with her:

Axler wondered what was going on in Tracy’s mind. She gets into a car with two people she’s never seen before, they drive her to a house on a dirt road deep in the country, and then she steps out of the car into a three-ring circus…. It didn’t make any sense that this Tracy should fall into their laps to do all of the Lara-like stuff they’d been dreaming excitedly about in bed. Though what did make sense? His being unable to go out and act on a stage?

Everything, for Axler, comes back to the original crisis: the loss of his ability to act, an event so painful and baffling that nothing else can be expected to make sense—including the actions or motivations of other people. And so Roth, with Axler, seems to beg to be excused from having to imagine why these women do the crazy things they do.

Since the late 1990s, when he published American Pastoral, Roth’s most vital writing has often been devoted not to the heroes of his novels but to their fathers, the tradesmen and petit bourgeois of Newark. They are jewelers (Everyman), butchers (Indignation), cinema operators (The Plot Against America), and glove makers (American Pastoral). As characters they are inseparable from their occupations, and their devotion to their work is inseparable from their devotion to their families. Collectively, these portraits seem a fantasy about work as a great stabilizing and domesticating force. Their work does not depend on an element of magic. Once you know how to eviscerate a chicken, you will always know how to do it. Not so, of course, for writers and actors.

It’s clear to Pegeen, if not to Axler himself, that he expects her to fill the void left by the end of his career. Even as he senses most acutely that she is pulling away from him, Axler also convinces himself of the opposite: that they will stay together, marry, and have a child. His fantasy—poignant for being so unrealistic, since Pegeen has never given any sign of wanting either children or marriage—leads him to make an appointment with a fertility specialist to find out the risks of conceiving children at his age. Less than a week after the doctor’s appointment Pegeen tells him over breakfast that “this is the end,” and that she “can’t be a substitute for your acting anymore.”

As he predicted, Axler is even more devastated after Pegeen leaves than he was before she arrived. He finds that having foreseen the catastrophe does not make it any easier to bear; it is as painful as the unexpected shock of his failure on stage. He calls Pegeen’s parents and accuses them, madly, of plotting against him. He thinks about killing himself but still can’t imagine actually pulling the trigger of his shotgun—not because he clings to life, but because he is utterly depleted and lacks the spirit for so significant an act.

In the end Axler manages what eluded Sabbath. He kills himself, thanks to a final moment of inspiration: he pretends he’s playing the role of Konstantin Gavrilovich in The Seagull, the young writer insecure about his talent, tormented by envy of his stepfather (a well-known writer who seduces the young country girl who is Konstantin Gavrilovich’s muse), and rage at his mother (a successful actress). Decades ago this role “marked his first big New York success, making him the most promising young actor of the season, full of certainty and a sense of singularity.” Back then Axler could only imagine what it was to feel a failure. But all his success has not protected him from this moment. His defeat is so thorough that he cannot make this final act heroic. He can only commit suicide in the ill-fitting disguise of a callow young man.

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