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.
In flat language, the serene joylessness reflecting long stretches of time spent without much in the way of human contact, Zuckerman explains how he came to leave the Berkshires for New York—it’s the story the novel will tell. His country neighbor for those last several years, a square, anxiously solicitous family man and retired insurance company lawyer, had become an unlikely friend to Zuckerman, seeing to it that he had someone to talk to over dinner once a week. Then the neighbor too got cancer, fast-spreading. As it was impossible for him to surrender to a messy death he killed himself, but not before sending Zuckerman a note:
Nathan, my boy, I don’t like leaving you like this. In this whole wide world, you cannot be alone. You cannot be without contact with anything. You must promise me that you will not go on living as you were when I found you. Your loyal friend, Larry.
It’s out of obedience to this fiat from the kind control freak Larry, then, not his own impulse, that Zuckerman comes to New York to try his luck at an operation. His impotence is beyond repair. But there’s a new technique that, while no guarantee, at least promises a chance of getting him out of diapers.
Early in Exit Ghost, Roth seems to aim to give us, through Zuckerman’s flat and resigned style, some of the emotive guidance that a musical score gives a movie: at first low and even-toned, then, out in the world, awakening again to the forgotten possibilities of drama. While at the hospital coffee shop, Zuckerman sees a key figure from the past: Amy Bellette, the object of his youthful amorous dreams and his brash fantasy in The Ghost Writer. An old woman now, she looks like a worse wreck than Zuckerman: a scary scar on her head marks a brain operation, and the way she’s wearing her hospital gown makes her seem a little crazy. Rather than say hello, Zuckerman avoids talking to her. But the encounter sends him later to the Strand to buy and read an old edition of Lonoff, who despite his brief glory of recognition in the late Fifties long ago fell out of print.
Eating dinner alone, Zuckerman spots an ad in The New York Review of Books placed by a young couple, writers looking to swap their Upper West Side apartment for a country place. Now he’s ready to act on an impulse of his own. Fired by the hope that his body might rise to the demands of the city, of life again, he hurries to check out their apartment, prepared to offer them a stint in his mountain lair. And here he runs into a woman who seems like a tempting collage, a cupcake baked from the crumbs of old lusts and crushes. The wife in the couple is a thirty-one-year-old named Jamie Logan. She’s an heiress who escaped from Houston debutante hell, went to Harvard, and has become a fiction writer still struggling to find her voice. She has rebelled against her George-Bushish background enough to threaten a nervous breakdown a few days later when Zuckerman comes over to watch the 2004 election returns and hopes for Kerry are dashed.
Jamie’s literary aspirations seem a bit vague, and she’s jittery and sensitive (it’s hardly possible to exaggerate the impact of September 11, but three years later her chronic fear that the terrorists will hit again seems like something to seek counseling for.) She’s intelligent, though, chic yet sincere, a stick-thin brunette who either consciously or in Zuckerman’s imagination intimidates him with her expert handling of male desire. As for Jamie’s husband, Billy, a witty mensch from Philadelphia who adores Jamie enough to arrange their lives around her happiness, Zuckerman instantly likes him too, though his unflappability as well as his willingness to live off her family money seems meant to indicate a fraught contemporary spinoff of manhood—secure in the presence of strong-willed women, newly and admirably emotionally grounded, but also, at least to Zuckerman’s mind, a bit subjugated, and available for advantage-taking in the same way that housewives used to be.
Surely—at least Zuckerman, amplifier of reality, is sure of it—Jamie must crave a more aggressive lover on the side. Richard Kliman, the ambitious, intense, hunky-for-an-intellectual twenty-eight-year-old who he decides must be playing this role, would bother him if he pulled off nothing more than this enviable cuckolding. But Kliman turns out to be a literary type, and he’s driving ahead with a project that to Zuckerman represents actual villainy. Kliman has stumbled onto an unfinished manuscript from the last five years of Lonoff’s life—five years that to Lonoff aficionados had been cloaked in mystery. All Zuckerman knew of the period is that Lonoff and his wife divorced, and Lonoff then went off with the unlikely young siren Amy Bellette, though the two never married. Supposedly Lonoff was toiling away at a novel, but nothing came of it, and he died of bone marrow cancer in 1962.
This is the manuscript Kliman says he now has in his possession, and he says it was given to him by none other than the old and ailing Amy Bellette. Against Lonoff’s intentions never to show it to the world, Kliman plans to make the manuscript the crux of the biography he’s working on: the plot of the novel, he claims, reveals a devastating secret from Lonoff’s past that he’s sure is the code to deciphering the work. Apparently, when he was seventeen, Lonoff’s family left him alone in Boston and went off to restart their lives as Zionist pioneers. He stayed behind in exile, cast out for having an affair with his older sister.
It’s a mark of how far Zuckerman has drifted from his old life—much farther than the distance from Manhattan to Massachusetts—that though his energy is now low and his days are no longer action-packed, his limited tour of New York in the fall of 2004 reminds us a bit of the rushed trips he took in the 1980s to beleaguered places like Prague and Israel. New York has now entered the leagues of the beleaguered, for one thing, still rattled by changes to its self-image that will take decades to absorb. For another, Zuckerman no longer seems to know quite how the natives live. Without trying, he still has a knack for encountering people in the throes of high-pitched feeling about some issue or other, either central to the times or eccentric, and drawing out of them a passionate and memorable speech.
With Jamie’s falling apart over the election, Roth seems to be trying to get at the despair of liberals who simply couldn’t believe in the autumn of 2004 what had happened to their country—how it kept getting worse, in ever more bizarre ways. A few critics have called these passages shrill, in the dopily narrow-minded view that politics don’t have a place in the novel—even if a character is possessed by thinking about politics. If the passages are shrill it’s because they vividly capture a shrill moment, a brief succumbing to grief, disgust, anger at helplessness, and loss of trust that history will probably show was the saner response than denial.
It is true, however, that Jamie’s views don’t quite sound like the views of a young person. The moneyed ease with which she can choose to head to the Berkshires for a year to work through her alienation makes her response to the crisis feel more aesthetic than political—her grief not specifically over what’s happening on the ground around the country but over the idea that Manhattan has to be part of the rest of the country; the idea of doing anything constructive does not appear to occur to her. But an aesthetic response to American politics is a rarefied and old-fashioned-seeming privilege; for the creative young of Manhattan its erosion does not rank that high, I suspect, on the list of what to mourn.
Zuckerman, drawn by the craving of old age for the familiar, stays at the old Hilton and loyally patronizes an old Italian restaurant still run by the family that knew him back when he was a vital man. Technologically, Roth makes him into more of a Luddite than he probably needs to be. Naturally he hates cell phones, but that he claims to neither care nor know about the Internet comes as a minor surprise: ten years ago, in The Human Stain’s summer of Monica Lewinsky, Zuckerman’s inquiry into the fate of Coleman Silk took him on line to look at the Athena College faculty discussion newsgroup, scanning for messages. Having dropped out, and not revisited the public conversation since it was dominated by the culture wars at their zenith, Zuckerman does not appear to have taken in the mad materialism, the imperative to catch the wave of a boom, the creativity this has unleashed as well as the new directions in mediocrity and the fear of obsolescence that has transformed New York’s cultural life more decisively than political correctness ever did.
When Zuckerman meets Kliman for one of their intellectual duels, the scenes pop with high Rothian energy, both funny and hostile. Kliman has a dash of the persistence and insane bravado of Zuckerman’s classic harasser Alvin Pepler from Zuckerman Unbound, and he has the righteousness and the surface love of literature (masking tone-deaf hostility underneath) of The Human Stain’s Delphine Roux. Kliman’s notion that incest is the key to unlock Lonoff’s work is of course anathema to Zuckerman, an invasion and bad interpretation, even if Amy doesn’t exactly deny it. Zuckerman overreacts but the man comes across as inconsiderate enough in his dealings with the fragile Amy Bellette that even if one doesn’t feel so threatened by the idea of biographical snooping it’s hard to take him too seriously.
Like Jamie, Kliman is wittily and vividly rendered—and yet one does wonder how much in the contemporary culture he really represents. Technology has made the revelation of secrets both an alarmingly constant habit and, more comfortingly, less of a cataclysmic event. Zuckerman is outraged at what he is sure is rampant careerism on Kliman’s part. But a good modern careerist would probably have a better strategy than writing the speculatively salacious biography of a writer the world has ceased to care about. The scary sign for literature is that the truly sharp modern careerists may well have departed it altogether.
What does Zuckerman want? A lovely, reminiscing riff on the grace with which George Plimpton moved between vastly different social worlds might suggest that he wishes time had simply stood still. Yet when he visits Amy Bellette in her decrepit walkup apartment—bare bulb lighting and urine smells in the hallway—he feels intense sympathy for, but also distance from, her unchecked cherishing of the past. There is a benign Miss Havisham quality to her greeting of him girlishly in a special dress, and in the passive, too-worshipful way she talks of the years with Lonoff as the only thing in her life that mattered. She is of course not Anne Frank, though the Holocaust swept through her family in unspeakable ways that he concludes have made her, however wise about what really counts in literature, of adaptive necessity a permanent child.
The scene with Amy has real tenderness; Zuckerman’s protective feelings for her and his confidence in his relative steadiness bring out the sharp, unflusterable stoic charm of the younger man. Next to her he looks lucky, and strong. Elsewhere, however, subtly planted hints indicate that Zuckerman might be starting to confuse things, to forget. He may even be on the way to losing his one consolation of writing.
What does he want? The sex he’s physically incapable of having, of course. In a series of dialogues interspersed throughout the novel, written by Zuckerman at night after he returns from talking with Jamie, he lays out their escalating flirtation (some of it real and some amplified, one suspects, but the ratio is impossible to tell). In the last of the dialogues, after aggressively pushing the point he finally (or is it in his dreams?) gets Jamie to agree to come to his room for a rendezvous. Then he panics and packs his bags, headed for home and the only companions left for him—dead authors writing about death. Presumably—Roth has confirmed it in interviews—he will never be seen by us again. Readers who remember the assumed farewell after The Prague Orgy, the alternate-reality heart failure in The Counterlife, and the return from hiatus with a twist in the 1990s would hardly be shocked to see him pop up once more.
But it’s hard to see how Zuckerman will dig himself out of the stark either-ors through which he’s come to view his life, either-ors that struck this reader less as universally true (must we either amplify or give up on life? is it impossible to find a middle ground between turbulence and reclusion?) than as ideas clung to by Zuckerman at this point almost like articles of faith. It’s a sign of Roth’s artistry, and his canny ethic of ambiguity, that when we’re not convinced by one of Zuckerman’s responses—when we see things we think he can’t, when he seems presumptuous in his leaping to conclusions or often simply behind the times—the idea shifts function, and instead of needing to convince us enriches our sense of his isolation.
Back in The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman, then writing at the zenith of his capacities, remembered treasuring the great stories of E.I. Lonoff. There was a pattern to these stories:
…The bemused isolate steels himself to be carried away, only to discover that his meticulous thoughtfulness has caused him to wait a little too long to do anyone any good, or that acting with bold and uncharacteristic impetuosity, he has totally misjudged what had somehow managed to entice him out of his manageable existence, and as a result has made everything worse.
The echoes are clear. Zuckerman never came to write like Lonoff—artistically, he was too drawn to amplitude. But against his turbulent nature, he came to give up his messy, peopled natural habitat and live the life of renunciation.
He was a fool to think he could go back to the life he left—at least this is how Zuckerman himself has come to judge his situation. Since there exists no actual Lonoff story to look up for comparison, we will allow ourselves to be reminded—in all this high-strung worry over the cost of a writing life, this life-or-death immersion in books and then the terror that it’s all been a mistake—of Henry James. Lonoff admired James, and Roth himself, when young, wrote a couple of novels that show his influence. It was an influence he seemed to throw off decisively with his comic scandal of a breakthrough in Portnoy’s Complaint. Yet through the years he’s kept those literary gods from his Fifties education in a drawer, to consult for guidance when, instead of breaking through and acting out and pushing forward, he needed to probe black-hole mysteries of human character. The toppler of taboos turns out still to have much in common with one of literature’s great secret keepers. And who’s to say, he could be right after all, he could even be looking ahead. The right to our enigmas—to see them, to be them—could be the new frontier in the fight for literary freedom.
December 6, 2007