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.

Short as it is (under 300 pages), Roth’s new novel is really an amalgam of three different books, all rolled together. The first, and finest of these is a moving elegy for the slow erosion of the self that is old age, for the way the process of growing old robs us of all we hold dear – our health, our faculties, our memories, our friends – leaving us only the frustrating knowledge of our own impotence. Incontinence is not Zuckerman’s only problem; on the contrary, it is the one he is most quick to acknowledge. It is only later, when the revelation becomes unavoidable, that we are told of a more serious loss: the loss of memory, the inability, so killing to a novelist, of remembering what he wrote yesterday or a few hours ago, the slipping of a talent that he has given all his life to. In Roth’s last book, Everyman, it was the imminence of death that was the enemy. In Exit Ghost, death is only the last of many indignities, the coda to a long litany of ‘no-longers’ by which (Tennyson again) “All things are taken from us, and become / Portions and parcels of the dreadful past”.

These are depressing waters, and Roth’s commitment to plumbing them to their depths means that Exit Ghost was always going to be an unhappy book. What redeems it is partly the quality of Roth’s writing. Zuckerman may be losing his memory, but Roth is still capable of producing some of the sharpest, most considered prose you’ll read this year. Describing a phone call to an acquaintance he hasn’t seen in half a century, for instance, Roth writes: “I dialed her number as though it were the code to restoring the fullness that once encompassed us all; I dialed as though spinning a lifetime counterclockwise were an act as natural and ordinary as resetting the timer on the kitchen stove.”

But more than that, it’s the complexity of Zuckerman’s state of mind – the blend of compulsion and self-mockery that may be Roth’s greatest contribution to narrative – that drives this work. Zuckerman’s dreams are impossible, his actions insane. He himself acknowledges as much. Yet his very stubbornness in pursuing them becomes an authentic celebration of the survival instinct, the way we cling obstinately to our lives even though we know they are meaningless and foolish. What Zuckerman is driven by is a kind of magical thinking: if it is true, as Conrad claims in The Shadow-Line (a work that Zuckerman repeatedly alludes to throughout the book) that only young people have rash moments, then surely by committing a rash act we can make ourselves young again. This is ridiculous – as Zuckerman himself puts it, “There is no virility. There is only the brevity of expectation”. Yet what can the spirit do but make this attempt, try to reclaim what is being lost? For the all but dead, even the follies of youth can be cause for nostalgia. What Zuckerman is pursuing as he lusts after a woman less than half his age or picks fights with athletic young men is not satisfaction (which it is too late for) but self-assertion.

But Roth’s finest achievement in Exit Ghost is not the fleshing out of Zuckerman’s state of mind, fascinating as that is. His great achievement here is the addition, to the pantheon of Shakespearian characters in his novels (remember Sabbath as Lear?), of the unlikely and incredible figure of Zuckerman as Hamlet – complete with an unachievable Ophelia, a Gertrude with a brain tumor, a hyper-ambitious Claudius (who may also, one suspects, turn out to be Fortinbras) and a guest appearance by the original Ghost, the short-story writer E. I. Lonoff, as Zuckerman’s apparitional father-in-prose. This is a delightful gambit, not least because, in a switch only Roth could pull off, Zuckerman’s Hamlet is not impotent because he is troubled, rather he is troubled because he is impotent. The development of this parallel (which we glimpse fleetingly, through subtle hints and clever by-plays) is a master-stroke, especially because Roth, instead of using these connections to comic effect, chooses instead to play it absolutely straight, using the blurred mirror of the Great Tragedy of youthful angst to reflect the quieter, more mournful defeat of growing old.

But Exit Ghost is not only an elegy for aging, it is also, vividly and triumphantly, a Nathan Zuckerman book, one that revives and reinvigorates much of the splendor of our hero’s earlier adventures. It’s all back – the obsession with confrontation, the long rants, the paranoia, the self-importance, the instinctive defensiveness, the gift for complication and paradox (is Kliman really a straight-shooter totally oblivious of other people’s feelings; or is he pretending to be heedless in order to come across as a straight-shooter? Did E.I. Lonoff spend the last five years of his life trying to write a novel about his murky past, or did he spend the last five years of his life inventing a murky past to write a novel about?). Some familiar character types return – Kliman as the antagonist with a gift for getting under Zuckerman’s skin, Jamie as the difficult yet fascinating love interest. Zuckerman himself comes across as being true to form. He’s self-centered, delusional and full of himself, and seems incapable of seeing women as anything but sex objects, but these are all traits he shares with his younger self from novels like Zuckerman Unbound and the Anatomy Lesson. You could say that Old Nathan Zuckerman is not a likable character, but given who Young Nathan Zuckerman was, how could he be?

It’s true that the years have dulled Roth’s gifts for verbal comedy, so that his tirades lack the bombast they once had, and often end up falling on the wrong side of bitter, but that doesn’t mean that Exit Ghost lacks its comic touches. One of my favorite moments in the book comes right after a three page attack (couched as a letter to the Times written by Lonoff’s former mistress, Amy) against the modern proclivity for ‘celebrity literature’ – the inability to separate the writer from his prose, to distinguish between our opinion of the author’s text, and our moral judgement of the author himself / herself – when Zuckerman, having read Amy’s impassioned argument, concludes that it “had mainly to do with Richard Kliman.”

This argument about not mixing fiction with biography recurs through much of the book and is, in my opinion, a carefully laid trap. At one point in the book, Roth gives us an eight page appreciation of his friend and mentor George Plimpton – a warm and compelling memorial that I have no reason to believe is not entirely heartfelt. Yet by placing these words of appreciation in the mouth of Zuckerman, Roth blurs even further the already thin line dividing Zuckerman from himself. It is almost impossible to read this book without at some point falling into the error of forgetting that the person speaking is Zuckerman, not Roth, so that when Zuckerman (and Roth) turn around to rant against the kind of ‘literary lice’ who can’t take fiction for what it is but insist on making it the basis of speculation about the writer’s life, you feel the rap falling on your own knuckles.

Overall then, Exit Ghost is a clever and delightful work, a fitting swan song to the Zuckerman novels, part mournful meditation, part last hurrah, with dashes of political comment thrown in for good measure. This is not Roth’s greatest work, it’s probably no better than average, but it’s an improvement on Everyman, a partial return to form. And average, for Roth, is not something to be scoffed at.

Which is why it’s a shame that wrapped up with all this there’s also a third book – a series of dramatic scenes that Zuckerman composes describing his (entirely fictional) affair with the 30-year old Jamie which consist of some of the flattest, most cringe-worthy writing Roth has ever produced. I’m not unsympathetic to what Roth is trying to do here – he’s clearly trying to make the point that Zuckerman, his powers failing and his wit overwhelmed by a ludicrous infatuation, is incapable of turning out anything remotely good (not to mention the way placing fiction within fiction makes a nice parallel with Hamlet’s play within a play), but was it really necessary for him to include the complete transcripts of what Zuckerman writes? These dialogs, that show up throughout the book, marked only ‘He’ and ‘She’, are insufferably banal, completely tone-deaf and so devoid of chemistry that they could be written on litmus paper without leaving an impression. If Roth’s purpose is to show us ‘bad writing’ he succeeds admirably, but to see exchanges this wooden issuing from the pen of a past master of snappy back and forth is to experience a misery like no other. Just comparing the He and She exchanges here with that unforgettable opening chapter of Deception is to want to break down and cry.

[cross-posted on 2x3x7]

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