There always comes a time when we realize that that writer whom we thought was the greatest that ever lived, isn’t actually. We readers have all experienced those short-lived deifications of our favourite writers. I used to think Dostoevsky was the greatest writer in history, until I read beyond Crime and Punishment. Gabriel García Márquez was the greatest writer ever too, for the duration of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and then I read something else by him. The more I read of Borges’ short-stories the more it became clear the divine ecstasy I felt during Fictions was never going to repeat itself. And contrary to what I’d like to believe, not every José Saramago novel is as brilliant as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Perfection? Perhaps only Juan Rulfo can boast of such attribute: there’s no flaw to find in Pedro Páramo and The Burning Plain. That is the glory of having written only two books in his lifetime. With Philip Roth I’m approaching that moment, after having read nineteen of his books, when I feel his best work is behind me already and only the leftovers remain for me to read. It’s disheartening, this moment of awareness.
Exit Ghost (2007), Philip Roth’s final instalment of the nine-part saga of Nathan Zuckerman, the irreverent writer who debuted in The Ghost Writer (1979), obviously disappoints every time it evokes the many better novels that precede it, but as a elegiac compendium of the saga’s man themes and anxieties, it’s a fitting end to Zuckerman’s literary career, which began, decades ago, with him masturbating in the studio of his role model, the writer E.I. Lonoff.
Nathan Zuckerman can’t masturbate anymore, he can’t even have sex. Impotent and incontinent, the septuagenarian novelist has been living in the woods, isolated from the world, for eleven years now, ever since he started receiving anonymous death threats (echoes of the extortionist from Zuckerman Unbound?). On a chance return to New York to try a new cure for his incontinence, the diaper-wearing, Zuckerman meets a ghost from his past – Amy Bellette, the young student he fleetingly saw, decades before, at the house of E.I. Lonoff. In the first Zuckerman novel, he imagined a fictional past for Amy that turned her into Anne Frank, survivor of the Holocaust and secretly living in American under a false alias. And Nathan of course wanted to have sex with her. Writing a hallucinatory fable about a young, aspiring Jewish writer fantasising about bedding Anne Frank, it’s no wonder Roth has been accused of being a self-loathing Jew and his writing anti-Semitic. Exit Ghost, however, is the Zuckerman novel least aware of its Jewishness, not counting the America trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain), where, truth be said, Zuckerman was the narrator of other people’s lives, and not the chronicler of his own seedy, chaotic, unglamorous existence. He had been missed.
After living like a hermit “with no sense of loss,” the feeling of ‘drought within’ him long since gone, and living outside not just ‘the great world but the present moment,” Zuckerman’s meeting with Amy encourages him to try to return to the world for one final attempt “at being suddenly like everybody else.” Through an ad offering to swap a New York apartment for a place in the woods, he meets Billy and Jamie Logan, a married couple of writers, who want to live in a quiet place in order to write and be safe from post-9/11 paranoia, Al-Qaeda and George W. Bush’s administration. But no sooner does Zuckerman meet Jamie than he starts imagining erotic scenarios where they flirt, and he even writes a play within the novel, using his usual strategy of converting reality into fiction in order to better control it, a method he had already used in The Counterlife to deal with the death of his brother, although this time, with his memory slowly eroding, not even words are enough to give a sense of stability to the writer who turned his life into art.
That Zuckerman is on diapers the reader already knew from the America trilogy. His dementia is a new development and pervades the novel. “Nothing is certain any longer that except that this will likely be my last attempt to persist in groping for words to combine into the sentences and paragraphs of a book. Because permanent groping is what it is now, a groping that goes well beyond the anxious for fluency that writing to begin with,” he laments, incapable of remembering words he jotted down only hours before. Zuckerman’s saga continues to be a process of brutal honesty about his frailty, both moral, mental and physical. Besides the powerlessness to control his own bladder, Zuckerman now wrestles with memory loss and with an upstart ruthless writer, Richard Kliman, who wants to make a name for himself by writing a scandalous biography of Lonoff, in which he reveals an incestuous affair he had with his older half-sister.
Exit Ghost is not Zuckerman’s final salvo. It’s a novel about growing old, about dying. It’s about Zuckerman’s failure to find meaning in the world, of seeing it being overrun by scum like Kliman, and retreating, after losing his mind and sexual vigour, into the books of his youth for a final ride with them. In particular he re-read and discusses at length Joseph Conrad’s “The Shadow-Line.” It’s a moving, depressing novel, full of melancholy, whose high point is when a writer with dementia talks with a woman dying from brain cancer. As such, the tone is elegiac and melancholy, closer to the sobriety of the America trilogy than the ribald absurdities of The Anatomy Lesson, with a Nathan on painkillers pretending to be a pornographer just to piss off a female taxi driver.
But this is also what I find most captivating about the novel, the way it’s a paler, weaker condensation of its predecessors’ themes, treating them with the diminished strength that matches Zuckerman’s own decline. Jamie, for instance, is an echo of Amy, but the fantasy he imagines for her has none of the forbidden daringness he created for Amy.
Zuckerman’s return to a New York he doesn’t feel at home in is a far cry from the cocky Zuckerman walking around it after achieving fame in Zuckerman Unbound. The memory loss that doesn’t let him work is not unlike the back pain he experiences in The Anatomy Lesson. And his ruminations about the Bush/Kerry presidential race, and putting it in its wider historical context, immediately reminds the reader of Zuckerman’s previous journeys through the big themes of American history – the civil rights movement, Vietnam, McCarthyism – that inform the America trilogy. Even his chase for half of a novel that Lonoff never completed is very similar to his earlier trip to Czechoslovakia to retrieve the manuscript of a dead Jewish writer, in The Prague Orgy. This is all to say that the reader benefits most from this novel if he has read the saga in its proper order.
Exit Ghost is also a novel about a paranoid and divided America. Watching Kerry’s defeat with Bill and Jamie allows Zuckerman, who’s given up voting, to reflect about history. Ironically he also acts as the memory of America, seeing the similarities between this event and others in the past, and being hardly affected by it because he’s been knocked around by history too much to have any illusions left. Billy and Jamie, instead, see the now as the defining moment of their lives, without consideration for how it articulates itself with what came before, literally seeing Bush’s victory as the end of history. Zuckerman is more worried about the age of the agélastes (1) that is descending upon him; not of Bush and his cronies but of humourless people like Jamie who lack irony, “who didn’t ever know how to say anything unseriously,” whose response to “the great world was ever anything but painfully intense.” Zuckerman, the great satirist, sees the world becoming devoid of irony. The world died before Zuckerman unlearned to live in it. It’s significant that in the play within the novel Zuckerman makes Jamie laugh a lot. “I laugh because I find things funny,” her alter ego says, transformed by the author through fiction, an example of the power of creative imagination.
This process of the creative imagination is another theme explored in the novel. Like all the other Zuckerman books, especially The Counterlife, this one is an ars poetica of Roth’s fiction. Roth, after all, is usually accused of writing himself into his novels and many see Zuckerman as his alter ego (2), although few appreciate how he uses this figure to meditate on the craft of the novelist. Improving and changing life, and not copying it, is what Zuckerman does, plainly stated since the day he imagined an unassuming student he had never seen before was Anne Frank. This ability to reshape life has never been understood, least of all by his family. His father and brother died hating him for allegedly using their lives as material for his novels. But as Zuckerman muses in The Counterlife, to expect his family to give him everything he needs to write a novel is like “expecting the woman next, whom you suspect of cheating on her husband, to reveal herself to you as Emma Bovary, and, what’s more, in Flaubert’s French.”
People don’t turn themselves over to writers as full-blown literary characters – generally they give you very little to go on and, after the impact of the initial impression, are barely any help at all. Most people (beginning with the novelist – himself, his family, just about everyone he knows) are absolutely unoriginal, and his job is to make them appear otherwise. It’s not easy.
So when Richard Kliman decides to write Lonoff’s biography which reveals his incestuous affair, Zuckerman flips. Although Kliman argues he wants to help rehabilitate the forgotten Lonoff, Zuckerman sneers at his good intentions. “Rehabilitation by disgrace” Nathan calls it, aware that he just wants a scandal to boost his own career. Even worse, Kliman’s only evidence that the incest happened comes from the unfinished novel. This strikes a chord with Zuckerman because he too has often been accused of things being true just because they’re in his novels. On a higher level, this is what many think of Roth’s novels, mere romans à clef in which Zuckerman plays him.
Like Lonoff who will be remembered as the author who transferred his incestuous affair with his half-sister into fiction, Roth also runs the risk of being remembered as the author who wrote sexual fantasies about his mother in Portnoy’s Complaint. This novel was a turning point in his career, not least because it was his first major success, but also because the stupidity of people who insisted in seeing Roth’s life in it made him start blurring the line between life and fiction, banking on the gullibility of readers and critics who saw the novel as thinly-disguised autobiography. When Kliman calls Lonoff’s novel “a tormented confession disguised as a novel,” Zuckerman replies, “Unless it’s a novel disguised as a tormented confession,” a perfect description of Portnoy’s Complaint, a long rambling confession made by a Jewish man to his psychiatrist. Zuckerman is sensitive to ‘biographical reductivism,’ as Amy calls it at one point, and instead defends the merits of the creative power of imagination, although one can also read it as an act of self-defence.
But I wonder if his defence of imagination doesn’t hinge also on his lament for the death of irony. For an un-ironical world is a world incapable of seeing things through fable, metaphor, capable only of seeing things literally, unable to appreciate humour and artifice, a world where non-fiction sells more than fiction, as it currently does, as if people have a deficit of reality in their lives and no longer have use for fantasy. Exit Ghost is not just Nathan Zuckerman’s elegy to Nathan Zuckerman, it’s also a warning about the future of the novel. Perhaps this is also the reason why I see so many references to classical American literature in it – his cabin in the woods, evoking Walden; returning to New York feeling like Rip Van Winkle after waking up from his twenty-year-old sleep. It’s a novel of nostalgia if the references didn’t direct one to death, age, seclusion, alienation. As far Roth’s novels go, this may be the most desperate one.
Fully aware of how weak this novel is compared to Roth’s previous efforts, it is however much recommended, with the caveat that reading the worthwhile saga of Zuckerman in order first will greatly improve it and make many of the themes here more poignant and clearer.
1 Rabelais, if Milan Kundera is to be believed (and he always should be! He wasn’t a police informant, honest! If he says he wasn’t, I believe him, and everything else is just mean-spirited lies.), invented the word agélaste, meaning people who don’t know how to laugh.
2 This argument always ignores novels like When She was Good, Our Gang, The Great American Novel, Letting Go, Sabbath’s Theater…