Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
– Tennyson, ‘The Lotos Eaters‘
Why is it that a ghost returns? Is it really in order to seek justice for the wrongs done to him, or in the hope of contact with a loved one, or to protect those he loves from harm? Or is it just that, by meddling among the living, the ghost hopes to reclaim for himself some vestige of past excitements, some inkling of what it meant to be alive? Does the torment of the grave lie not in anguish, but in the slow suffocation of the self, the knowledge that all we once were is lost forever?
This is the idea at the heart of Philip Roth’s intriguing new novel Exit Ghost. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s familiar alter-ego, has spent the last 11 years of his life living in almost complete isolation in the New England countryside – a period in which he has become both impotent and incontinent. Returning to New York after his long absence, ostensibly for a medical procedure that promises to restore his bladder control, he finds himself suddenly thrown into the world of the living, and proceeds to seize upon it through a series of spontaneous and unbalanced decisions that he recognizes as madness even as he makes them. Why then does he perpetuate such foolishness? Because he wants to be, in his own words, “back in the drama, back in the moment, back into the turmoil of events! When I heard my voice rising, I did not rein it in. There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness.” It is this doomed attempt to hold on to one’s slipping existence, this rage against the dying of the light, that Exit Ghost gloriously celebrates.