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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.