By Philip RothHoughton Mifflin
Having assumed the title of this very slight novel to be drawn from the famous stage direction in Hamlet, I was quite braced for some Rothian reflections on the Oedipal, with plenty of reluctant and dutiful visits to wheezed-out Jewish fathers in the wilderness of postindustrial New Jersey, and to the grisly wives and mothers who had drained them dry and made them into husks. But the reference is actually to another sort of father figure: a dead and almost-forgotten writer called E. I. Lonoff, who had been a hero and mentor to the young Nathan Zuckerman. According to Lonoff’s relict, a terminal brain-cancer patient named Amy Bellette, the great man had once instructed her to take down the following aperçu: “Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era.”
By the time that he encounters this rather ordinary valediction, which occurs in the second half of the book, Zuckerman has been revealed as highly disposed to hear it. He has been stuck on the top of a Massachusetts mountain for 11 years, seeing almost nobody and ignoring the news and, by the sound of it, not getting much work done. His prostate has turned against him in a big way, forcing him to wear Pampers and to endure the regular humiliation of feeling sodden. Returning to New York in the hope of an operation to repair his urinary arrangements (a hope that proves vain), he is geezerishly astonished by the prevalence of cell phones and by the general cultural barbarity. But this feeling of nausea and alienation is by no means enough to quell his excitement when he notices one of those apartment-swap ads in The New York Review of Books, and sees that some young couple wants a place just like his in the rural fastnesses.
Am I by any chance boring you? I promise that I have done my best to put a light skip into this summary of a weary trudge. Roth’s own method of alleviation we can see coming a mile off: The female half of the want-ad couple will turn out to be a fox, offering the ghost of a chance that Zuckerman’s flaccid and piss-soaked member can be revived. And so it proves. While he maneuvers to stay in the big city and see how it plays out with Jamie and her slavish husband, Billy, he may as well defend E. I. Lonoff’s reputation from being ruined by an ambitious young author who wants to tell the deceased author’s story—a story that may well include an episode of incest. Zuckerman is in no mood for cocky young men in any case, but he also doesn’t think the vulgar public can be trusted to separate the work from the life. So, as a service to literature and the noble standards of a dying breed, he does his best to sabotage the Lonoff biography, and the biographer.
Some protracted mourning for the late George Plimpton, and some authorial recollections of Jewish establishment “denunciation of my first published stories as sinister manifestations of ‘Jewish self-hatred,’” remove all doubt about the autobiographical character of the narrator. As with Exit Ghost’s immediate predecessor, Everyman, one gets an ever-stronger impression that Roth has degraded the Eros-Thanatos dialectic of some of his earlier work and is now using his fiction, first to kill off certain characters and to shoot the wounded, and second to give himself something to masturbate about. The self-abusive parts are contained in a play within the novel, written by Zuckerman under the title of He and She. Here is a section of the dialogue between the vixen Jamie and the hated (by Zuckerman) young biographer Richard Kliman, whom he believes to be her secret lover:
SHE: Richard, I’m married.
HE: I know that. Billy’s the guy to marry and I’m the guy to fuck. You tell me why all the time. “It’s so thick. The base is so thick. The head is so beautiful. This is just the kind I like ...”
SHE: Get away from me. Get out of here right now. Billy’s coming home. Get out. Get out of my house or I’ll call the police.
HE: Wait’ll the police see you in just that top and those shorts. They won’t leave either. You’ve got the prettiest cunt and the basest instincts.