Books October 2007

Zuckerman Undone

In Philip Roth’s latest, the characters are treated with disregard—and the readers with something like contempt.

More fervid perhaps in its tone, this is the dumbest sex scene that Roth has written since Sabbath’s Theater. (One guy jerking off in a bleak woodland over his mistress’s grave? Maybe. But a whole host?) However, at least such material sparks his flagging interest, which is more than can be said for his characters. Zuckerman asks Billy about Jamie’s upbringing:

And so he told me, lavishly expatiating on her accomplishments: about Kinkaid, the exclusive private school in Houston from which she’d graduated valedictorian; about her stellar academic career at Harvard, where she graduated summa cum laude; about River Oaks, the wealthy Houston neighborhood where her family lived; about the Houston Country Club, where she played tennis and swam and had come out as a debutante against her will; about the conventional mother she tried so hard to accommodate and the difficult father she could never please ...

Are you absolutely sure that I am not boring you? The dull reported speech with which Roth economizes (so much easier to do the background of WASP-dread secondhand, rather than evoking it directly as he used to do) is limpid and engaging when set beside the great swaths of soliloquy-as-dialogue in which the remainder of Exit Ghost is bogged down. (One of Billy’s later answers, about old and new money in the Greater Houston area, and its relation to anti-Semitism, goes on for almost two and a half pages. We are not spared further deep thoughts about country clubs. Everything is a cliché, and a lame replay of past encounters with alluring shiksas.)

As well as displaying an affectless disregard for his characters, Roth evinces something very like contempt for his readers. We learn from Amy that she thinks Lonoff was killed by the subject matter of his novel (a subject that Zuckerman for some reason forgets to ask her about). She goes on to say:

“When Primo Levi killed himself everyone said it was because of his having been an inmate at Auschwitz. I thought it was because of his writing about Auschwitz, the labor of the last book, contemplating that horror with all that clarity. Getting up every morning to write that book would have killed anyone.”

And Zuckerman notes for our benefit: “She was speaking of Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved.” Good to have that cleared up.

Zuckerman, as it happens, is suffering from a writer’s disability of his own: He has done four drafts of a novel that he considers “at once unsatisfactory yet finished.” He asks himself “what two American writers of the highest rank” might do in his position. Hemingway, he decides, would “put the manuscript aside, either to attempt to rewrite it later or to leave it unpublished for good,” whereas Faulkner would “doggedly submit the completed manuscript for publication, permitting the book that he’d labored over unstintingly, and that he could take no further, to reach the public as it was and to yield whatever satisfactions it could.” There seems to be more than a slight danger of hubris here, since Roth is inviting comparison with Hemingway and Faulkner while simultaneously allowing us to infer that he has decided to off-load a work that is something considerably less than first-rate. This half-guilty awareness is masked by a good deal of diatribe, against the collapse of literary standards in general and of the standard of cultural coverage in The New York Times in particular. In his curmudgeonhood, Zuckerman ends up quitting the city without even going back for his second-chance appointment with the urologist. Exit Ghost is billed as the last of the Zuckerman adventures, but it’s as if Roth stops writing the book rather than finishes it.

There is a brief allusion to another ghost: the revenant figure in “Little Gidding” who offers the poet “the gifts reserved for age.” Zuckerman says that he’s going to look these up, but he never does, and it isn’t clear whether he forgets to or whether Roth has. That’s perhaps a pity, because he might have taken a warning from the “gifts,” which include

The conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment

Recycling or reenactment is arguably a bad sign, especially when one is already putting the reader in mind of the subject matter of The Dying Animal. In that other very minor work, as perhaps you will recall, David Kepesh lost patience with the oral-sex ineptitude of one of his students, and

shoved a couple of pillows back of her head, propped up her head like that, angled it like that up against the headboard, and with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.

So there’s no need to draw us a picture of that event. In Exit Ghost, or rather in He and She, in the middle of a wasteland of stilted conversation about Jamie’s girlhood—most of it an aching repetition of what Billy has already “told” us—Jamie reveals that something not unlike the above, culminating in her vomiting, was once inflicted on her by the captain of the tennis team. Prompt upon his cue, Zuckerman seizes an opportunity to correct her on a point of grammar, and then adds: “In the old days, before well-brought-up adolescent girls had their faces fucked forcefully, you never heard ‘hopefully’ misused like that.”

When Raymond Chandler felt things going limp in a story, he would have the door open and then it would be: Enter a man carrying a gun. When Roth is in the same fix, we know that some luckless goy chick is about to get it in the face. Exit reader.

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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