Books May 2006

New Fiction

Finds and flops
  • Everyman

    By Philip Roth
    Houghton Mifflin

Following the historical panoramas of his recent work, Roth’s new novel— a novella, really—is a transfixing summary biography of a seventy-one-year-old mortal from Elizabeth, New Jersey: “He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.”

Thus the personal history of this “average human being” is reduced almost to a surgical history: hernia trouble as a boy; a burst appendix and peritonitis in his thirties; and, in his fifties and sixties, disastrously recurrent cardiac difficulties that clutter him with six stents and a defibrillator. The vocabulary of heart disease hurled at the reader—angiogram, anterior descending artery, ejection fraction, fatal cardiac arrhythmia—is supplemented by the back braces, strokes, cancers, and migraines that plague our hero’s nearest and dearest. The whole “onslaught” is horribly aggravated by his memories of carnal exaltation and bungled marriages and the beloved dead, not to mention by the awful truth that “there was nothing to be done. No fight to put up. You take it and endure it. Just give yourself over to it as long as it lasts.”

Let’s use a noun I’ve never used before: masterpiece. Whereas Roth’s prize-laden recent fictions are a tad manipulative, in Everyman there is never any sense of a novelist trying to write a novel. Every sentence is urgent, essential, almost nonfictional. The sophistication and indirection forced on practically every writer are replaced by a straightforwardness of, yes, masterly authority. The text so thoroughly embodies, rather than displays, expertise that only after I’d finished reading did I realize that the protagonist’s name had been withheld. Everyman is therefore that rarest of literary achievements: a novel that disappears as it progresses, leaving in one’s hands only the matters of life and death it describes.

Presented by

Joseph O'Neill is a novelist in New York City.

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In