Michael Dirda

Novelist Philip Roth
Novelist Philip Roth (Helayne Seidman/for The Washington Post)
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 30, 2007


By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin. 292 pp. $26

The prose is as assured and inviting as ever, but Philip Roth's latest -- and perhaps last -- novel about his alter ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, is in many ways a magnificent shambles, like old age itself. Exit Ghost mixes reflections on physical decline, illness and the persistence of desire with an angry sadness over the 2004 presidential election, bitter opinions about biography, and praise for the patrician grace of George Plimpton, the late editor of the Paris Review. Large chunks of the book are cast as a minimalist play -- starring "He" and "She" -- in which Zuckerman fantasizes conversations with a young woman to whom he is attracted. As in the earlier accounts of Zuckerman's career (in particular The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy, which are now gathered together in a recent Library of America volume), Exit Ghost both encourages and undercuts the instinct to identify the life of the now reclusive Nathan Zuckerman with that of the now reclusive Philip Roth.

The opening chapter, "The Present Moment," is the most moving. Zuckerman is 71 and for the past 11 years has been living alone in the Berkshires, where he writes, rereads favorite books, listens to music and occasionally watches baseball on television. Life is manageable, and he gets on with his work. But ever since an operation for prostate cancer some nine years previously, Zuckerman has been not only impotent but also incontinent: He wears cotton pads in his plastic underwear to absorb his seeping urine. As he says, without self-pity, "What you do not have, you live without -- you're seventy-one, and that's the deal."

And it's a better deal than many have. "The habit of solitude, of solitude without anguish, had taken hold of me, and with it the pleasures of being unanswerable and being free -- paradoxically, free above all of oneself. For days on end of only work, I would feel sweetened by luxurious contentment. Loneliness, raving loneliness, was sporadic and amenable to strategy. . . . All in all, being without any need to play a role was preferable to the friction and agitation and conflict and pointlessness and disgust that, as a person ages, can render less than desirable the manifold relations that make for a rich, full life."

Though nothing can be done about Zuckerman's loss of virility, a new operation unexpectedly offers the possibility of greater bladder control, so the old writer travels back to New York City. He daydreams of rejuvenation, of simply being able to swim in a public pool: "To possess control over one's bladder -- who among the whole and healthy ever considers the freedom that bestows or the anxious vulnerability its loss can impose on even the most confident among us? I who'd never thought along these lines before, who from the age of twelve was bent on singularity and welcomed whatever was unusual in me -- I could now be like everyone else."

After leaving his doctor's office with this new hope, Zuckerman unexpectedly hears a familiar voice in the lobby, a voice from his distant past. It belongs to an old woman, wearing a dress made out of a hospital gown, with half her hair shaved off from surgery (for brain cancer, we later learn). Nearly 50 years ago, Amy Bellette was the student and then the mistress of Zuckerman's literary idol, the short story writer E.I. Lonoff. Back then, the 23-year-old Zuckerman convinced himself that this beautiful European refugee might just be the grown-up Anne Frank.

From this point on, Exit Ghost starts to work variations on themes suggested by The Ghost Writer, the very first Zuckerman novel. Zuckerman, now himself the elderly literary eminence, meets a 30-year-old short story writer, the sexy Jamie Logan, about whom he begins to daydream and write. Then he clashes with a vulgarly ambitious young man named Richard Kliman -- much like his own younger self -- who wants to make his literary reputation with a tell-all biography of E.I. Lonoff. Finally, Zuckerman spends an evening with Amy Bellette, learning about her family, the four years she spent with Lonoff and her life since his death.

These encounters prove surprisingly exhilarating to the old writer. At times Zuckerman feels that he's back in the fray, back in the thick of the world. But then, he suddenly deflates: "An aging man, his battles behind him, who suddenly feels the urge . . . to what? Once around with the passions wasn't enough? Once around with the unknowable wasn't enough? Into the mutability again?" And what of the mounting evidence of mental, as well as physical, decline? If he doesn't list names and dates and activities in his daily calendar, he is likely to forget them entirely. Even worse, he is growing convinced that he's losing his command of language and the ability to create. Try as he might, his last novel simply wouldn't come out as he wanted it:

"I discovered that I had to labor every day against the threat of incoherence. When I had finished -- when, after four drafts, that is, I could go no further -- I couldn't tell whether it was reading of the completed manuscript that was itself marred by a disordered mind or whether my reading was accurate and the disordered mind was what was itself mirrored in the writing."

As much as he loathes Kliman for wanting to reduce the artistry of E.I. Lonoff to a "dark secret" from his past -- a secret reminiscent of one attributed to the novelist Henry Roth -- Zuckerman yearns just as mightily for Jamie Logan, but to what end? He is impotent, out of touch with the times, old. His heart almost breaks with longing: "Why did I have to get cancer of the prostate? . . . Why must strength's abatement be so quick and cruel? Oh, to wish what is into what is not, other than on the page!"

As a portrait of the artist as an old man, Exit Ghost delivers pages of great, sad power. But as a work of art it feels unfocused, never quite drawing together its various threads but, in the end, simply relinquishing them. At times I wondered if Roth was practicing what has sometimes been called the fallacy of imitative form -- in this case, writing a slightly incoherent book to reflect the incoherence of his aging hero's mind. At other times, I concluded that his lack of a strong plot, the weak fantasy playlet of "He and She," the attack on the modern tendency to reduce art to a complex or an ism, and the many pages, albeit excellent in themselves, about George Plimpton were all typical of "late style," that wild freedom characteristic of great artists in old age when they blithely ignore the expected conventions and disdain the polish of ordinary form and beauty. Toward the end of life, mere "art" seems to get in the way of truth.

Yet, Zuckerman argues, the truth about a writer lies in his art, not his biography. Nonetheless, ours is an age of titillation, of Internet gossip, of journalists and critics and readers who latch on to the human failings and antics of an author while half-ignoring or dismissing the actual work in all its shaped and ruminative glory. As Zuckerman writes bitterly: "The man in control of the words, the man making up the stories all his life, winds up, after death, remembered, if at all, for a story made up about him, his covert brand of baseness discovered and described with uncompromising candor, clarity, self-certainty, with grave concern for the most delicate issues of morality, and with no small measure of delight."

This being Philip Roth, Exit Ghost manages some occasional laughter in the dark ("a spotlessly virtuous person, dresses in burlap and reads only Thoreau"); and, again, this being Philip Roth, the novel is sometimes brutally sexual (the description of Jamie's past, whether imagined or actual). Above all, though, the book shows us a man trying to work with the cards that fate has dealt him -- and to accommodate himself to the diminution of his mental and physical powers. In this struggle, any of us can see our own destinies, whether we are "no-longers" or "not-yets." As Leon Trotsky, no less, said with simple truth: "Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man." *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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