Zuckerman Undone

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

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.

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.