Philip Roth’s Everyman

“My spirit is too weak – mortality
Weighs heavily upon me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.”

– John Keats, ‘On seeing the Elgin Marbles’

*Begin Rant*

What ails Philip Roth? His new novel, Everyman, is his worst book in years, perhaps his worst book ever (and that includes such eminently forgettable work as When She was Good). It’s an ungainly travesty of a novel that would seem barely promising coming from the pen of a 18-year old MFA student making his literary debut. As the latest work of the Grand Master of American Letters, a man who is, arguably, the finest American Novelist (in every sense of that term) now living, it’s more than devastatingly disappointing, it’s an insult to everything the Roth is and everything we expect him to be.

*Stop rant. Take deep breath*

Right. To see just why Everyman is such a bad novel, let’s start by going over all the reasons why Roth is such an incredible writer [1]. First, there’s the sheer energy of his writing – few writers I can think of can match the raw power, the visceral appetite, the sheer momentum of Roth’s best prose. Read American Pastoral. Read The Anatomy Lesson. Hell, read even The Great American Novel. In each and every one of these Roth transforms the rant into a work of art, turning excess, through sheer literary force, into beauty, taking savage horsepower to symphonic proportions.

Second, there’s the sheer ingenuity of his plots, the imaginativeness of the situations he places his protagonists in. Who but Roth could spoof Kafka by writing a novelette about a man who wakes up one morning and finds he’s turned into a giant breast? Who but Roth would come up with a novel where the protagonist, the writer Philip Roth, goes to Israel to confront his arch-nemesis, the other Philip Roth, and ends up working as a special agent for the Mossad? Who but Roth could imagine the delightful sexual byplay of The Counterlife, of Deception?

Closely linked to this creativity is Roth’s magical ability to create characters who are larger than life, entirely over the top, and yet amazingly real and compelling. The list of memorable fictional personalities we owe to Roth is long and awe-inspiring – Portnoy, Zuckerman, Sabbath, Kepesh, Lonoff. Every one of these characters is at once ridiculous and magnificient, perverted and sublime. It’s a cast of literary brainchildren that any author would be proud to call his own.

Fourth, there’s the writing itself. Underneath all of Roth’s outrageousness is a writer of prose that is as moving as it is impeccable. Read Patrimony. Read Plot Against America. Read the last chapters of the Professor of Desire. Can you find a paragraph, or even a sentence that is not polished to perfection?

All of the above are the reasons why Roth’s new novel, Everyman, is such a miserable failure – because there isn’t one of those qualities that this book consistently demonstrates.

Let’s start with the language. If you’d told me a year ago that Philip Roth, THE Philip Roth, would be writing lines like “he’d served manfully in the navy just after the Korean War” or “to have a child who was number one in every way”, I would have laughed. But there they are – on page 30 and 76 respectively. At its worst, the writing in Everyman reads either like an extract from a real estate brochure:

“The facilities for the five hundred elderly residents who lived in these compounds, spread over a hundred acres, included tennis courts, a large common garden with a potting shed, a workout center, a postal station, a social center with meeting rooms, a ceramics studio, a woodworking shop, a small library, a computer room with three terminals and a common printer, and a big room for lectures and performances and for the slide shows that were offered by couples who had just returned from their travels abroad. There was a heated Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool in the heart of the village as well as a small indoor pool, and there was a decent restaurant in the modest mall at the end of the main village street, along with a bookstore, a liquor store, a gift shop, a bank, a brokerage office, a realtor, a lawyer’s office and a gas station. A supermarket was only a short drive away, and if you were ambulatory, as most residents were, you could easily walk the half mile to the broadwalk and down to the wide ocean beach, where a lifeguard was on duty all summer long.”

Or like the ramblings of a rank amateur:

“By this time Howie had arrived. He had flown in from Europe, where he’d gone to do business and also to play polo. He could ski now, skeet-shoot, and play water polo as well as polo from atop a pony, having acquired virtuosity in these activities in the great world long after he’d left his lower-middle-class high school in Elizabeth, where, along with the Irish-Catholic and Italian boys whose fathers worked on the docks at the port, he’d played football in the fall and pole-vaulted in the spring, all the while garnering grades good enough to earn him a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and then admission to the Wharton School to earn an MBA.”

“having acquired virtuosity in these activities”?! Tchah! And what’s with all the name dropping – I’m not ungrateful for the product placement of Wharton, but really!

Not all of the writing is this bad, of course. Though the fact that even some of it is speaks volumes for how much Roth has fallen. There are large parts of the novel which read as if Roth, rather than telling you the story were telling you about the story – almost as if her were writing a review of his novel, rather than the novel itself. Consider:

“The thought of his daughter and her children falling victim to a terrorist attack tormented him during his first months at the shore, though once there he no longer had anxiety for himself and was rid of that sense of pointless risk taking that had dogged him every day since the catastrophe had subverted everyone’s sense of security and introduced an ineradicable precariousness into their daily lives. He was merely doing everything he reasonably could to stay alive.”

Or this:

“Howie’s resurrecting with such painstaking precision the world as it innocently existed before the invention of death, life perpetual in their father-created Eden, a paradise just fifteen feet wide by forty feet deep disguised as an old-style jewelry store”

If that last sentence had appeared in a review of Everyman in the New York Review of Books I would have admired it, but placed within the book itself it seems strangely short-handish, as though Roth simply wanted to tell you what he wanted to say, without trying to say it through the novel.

To be fair, there are plenty of bits in the novel, especially in the second half, when Roth gets his form back, and his voice begins to hum like the finely tuned engine it is. Unfortunately, these bits consist mostly of the parts where Roth is going over ground long familiar to his readers. So we get the ‘indignant man justifying his divorce even though he shouldn’t have to’ routine from the Kepesh novels, the ‘my father was a hard working yet simple tradesman in New Jersey who took great pride in the craftsmanship of his product’ bit from American Pastoral, which also gives us the ‘brother figure who was an All-American success story’ piece, there’s the ‘straying husband wonderful yet wronged wife’ routine, the ‘bitch wife who makes man’s life hell’ routine. By the end of all this, the whole novel starts to read like it has been haphazardly pieced together from all the bits that got left on the editing table over the last twenty years of Roth’s life. As Roth puts it himself, “these episodes are indeed well known and require no further elaboration”.

To add to the misery, there’s Roth’s strange decision to structure the novel as a set of vignettes revolving around the nameless protagonist’s many medical emergencies. It’s an intriguing narrative device, but it means that Roth, trying to give us the full sweep of his protagonist’s life, is forced to resort to fairly ham-handed summaries in each section of the book, using ponderous digressions to fill in the pieces of information missing. This makes the entire book seem exceedingly awkward and artificial. Because Roth has to keep stopping to give you the back-story, and because he chooses to use little or no finesse to bring out the pertinent details, you find yourself repeatedly starting and stopping, and the novel never really achieves anything resembling flow. The result is a book that reads like a patchwork of scenes sewn together hastily and with minimal skill. Not the kind of writing you would expect from Roth.

But perhaps the greatest failure of Everyman is that Roth is too good at creating larger than life characters to credibly come up with anything resembling an average person, a true everyman. Just leaving your main character nameless does not make him ubiquitous. Most average men, I suspect, are not wildly successful advertising executives, who run through three marriages (including one to a Danish model half their age), sleep around with assistants and nurses, retire to wealthy old age communities to dabble in painting and seem to spend their entire adult lives worrying about death and disease and mortality, to the point where their entire existence is best summed up as a series of visits to the operating theatre. The trouble with Everyman is that Roth is trying very hard not to be Roth, and not quite managing it. Because he does not want to create another epic character in the Sabbath mode, he pulls his punches every time his protagonist starts to take on anything resembling a distinctive personality, deliberately trying to make him more average. But because Roth’s real talent is for the specific rather than the general (or for the general only through the specific) his protagonist never really becomes believable as an everyman. And so we are left floundering in a no man’s land, unable to either identify with the main protagonist, or admire him. Everyman doesn’t work because it’s not about everyman, it’s about some man, and a fairly underfleshed some man at that.

Nor are the other characters in the book more convincing. Almost every other incidental character in this book is a caricature, a convenient mouthpiece for Roth’s (not particularly original) musings about old age and mortality. It almost feels as though Roth were in such a hurry to put all the thoughts in his head about growing old and facing up to death on paper, that he didn’t see the need to bother with actually writing a novel to go around those ideas at all.

In the final analysis, Everyman reads like a betrayal because it represents, in many ways, the surrender of Roth’s customary and native energies, his essential buoyancy. The genius of Roth’s characters has always been their ability to win glory out of the most tortured and despairing of circumstances. In Sabbath’s Theater, in American Pastoral, Roth takes characters who are deeply tortured, and manages to render them heroic. In Everyman, he does the opposite – he takes a man who by all accounts has had a successful life, and shows us the essential despair underlying this triumph. The trouble with this is not just that it feels like Roth’s heart isn’t in it (and what’s a Philip Roth novel without the muscle of that heart pumping through it?), it’s also that, frankly, we don’t need Roth to tell us that growing old is depressing and alienating and scary. We need him to show us how it can also be beautiful and, in an exceedingly twisted way, kind of funny.

There are probably two episodes in the entire novel that reflect, in my opinion, Roth’s true genius. Both are set, ironically enough, in the protagonist’s family graveyard (a scene that the novel repeatedly returns to). The first is a moving and poetic account of the burial of the protagonist’s father, where the physical act of filling up the father’s grave becomes a metaphor for the burial of memory and pain, for acceptance, for the blurring of the gap that death leaves in our hearts. The second is a marvelous riff on the Hamlet graveyard scene, where the protagonist, visiting his family graveyard a few days before his death, happens upon a grave-digger at work, and proceeds to spend time in idle conversation with him, going over the mechanics of how a grave is dug. This is a truly Roth-ian scene – at once absurd and supremely realistic, down to earth but also memorable. These two scenes alone, though they span less than one-tenth of the book’s 182 pages, are enough to demonstrate why Roth is such an incredible writer, and together they may just be enough to make this book worth reading.

In the end, one can’t help feeling a certain amount of sympathy for Roth. One understands that Bellow’s death left him stunned and bewildered. One recognises that Roth is getting on in years (and one admires him for the persistence and the talent he is still able to bring to bear – few of us would have such strength). One sees why he felt he had to write this book. But I can’t help questioning why he needed to have it published. Or why he couldn’t have waited a while and taken the trouble to at least edit / rewrite it a little. No matter how charitable one wants to be to Roth, there’s no getting away from the fact that Everyman is an exceedingly average book, and one that, coming from a man who has a string of masterpieces to his credit, is deeply disappointing, even though admitting as much probably hurts me more than it hurts him.

To end this review on a hopeful note, though, here’s one final extract from the book – a piece of writing that I loved, and that gives me hope that Everyman is a temporary eclipse, and that the Roth I know and admire will return, to dazzle us again with prose unimaginably brilliant:

“Or was the best of old age just that – the longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body and that rode the waves from way out where they began to build, rode them with his arms pointed like an arrowhead and the skinny rest of him following behind like the arrow’s shaft, rode them all the way in to where his rib cage scraped against the tiny sharp pebbles and the jagged clamshells and pulverised seashells at the edge of the shore and he hustled to his feet and hurriedly turned and went lurching through the low surf until it was knee high and deep enough for him to plunge in and begin swimming madly out to the rising breakers – into the advancing, green Atlantic, rolling unstoppably toward him like the obstinate fact of the future – and, if he was lucky, make it there in time to catch the next big wave and then the next and the next and the next until from the low slant of inland sunlight glittering across the water he knew it was time to go.”

[1] I’ve blogged about Roth before, so some of this may be repetition.