No one in contemporary American literature rages as magnificently, and as prolifically, as Philip Roth does. Over a long career, Roth has shone the master novelist’s light on, among many other things, adolescent sexuality; various aspects of the Jewish-American experience in the second half of the 20th century; the repercussions of the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s; American loss of innocence in Vietnam; how different the world could be if a single moment in history had turned out otherwise; and an author’s relationship with what he creates. In doing this, he has given us an line of unforgettable characters, examining them in meticulous detail (and in powerful, passionate prose) and yet retaining the detachment to observe that “life isn’t about getting people right, it’s about getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again”. He has engaged full-bloodedly with life; equally, he has stood back and played distanced observer.
The instrument for much of this raging and observing has been Nathan Zuckerman, who has narrated some of Roth’s finest books, including the masterful trilogy he wrote when he was well into his 60s: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. The line between author and creation is not always clear – like Roth himself, Zuckerman is a Jewish writer of serious literary fiction, born in 1933, and his existence has often supplied the pretext for Roth’s examination of the connections between writing and life.
These connections are central to the plot of Roth’s latest novel, the eloquently titled Exit Ghost, which is widely assumed to be Zuckerman’s swansong. The book is set in late 2004, around the time of the presidential election that sees George W Bush elected to power for a second term, sending liberals around the country into a spiral of despair. Zuckerman, who has been living in near-solitude in a mountain retreat for a decade, is in New York City for a medical procedure when a series of encounters deter him from returning to his self-imposed exile. After impulsively agreeing to swap homes with a young couple, Billy and Jamie, who are looking for a country retreat, he becomes smitten by the vibrant, intelligent Jamie. Around this time, he is contacted by a brash young wannabe-biographer claiming to know the "great secret" of the life of the late E I Lonoff, who was Zuckerman’s first literary hero (and a character in Roth’s 1979 novel The Ghost Writer) decades earlier. Fiercely resistant to what he sees as the exploitation of a dead writer’s personal life to provide a key to his work, Zuckerman finds himself “back in the drama, back in the turmoil, back into the turmoil of events...wanting to be with people again and have a fight again and have a woman again and feeling the pleasure of one’s power again”.
But is he up for the fight? Roth’s last book, the slim Everyman, dealt with awareness of approaching mortality and coming to terms with the disintegration of one’s body. Zuckerman’s physical condition in Exit Ghost furthers the theme. Having had his prostate removed, he is now suffering from incontinence and its attendant humiliations (“You smell like death!” shouts the young biographer in the heat of an argument. What could he know, Zuckerman reflects: “All I smelled of was urine”), in addition to being impotent. The terrors of old age have beset a man who was once so full of vitality.
As if incontinence weren’t indignity enough, one had then to be addressed like a churlish eight-year-old baulking at taking his cod liver oil. But that’s how it goes when an elderly patient refuses to resign himself to the inevitable travails and totter politely towards the grave: doctors and nurses have a child on their hands who must be soothed into soldiering on in behalf of his own lost cause.Worst of all for a writer, he is losing his memory, so that he might wake up one morning with little recollection of the thought processes that led him to write something the previous night. All this adds urgency to this last stab at “being in the world...taking it on” and his quest to (as he sees it) prevent the desecration of Lonoff’s memory. It also makes his meeting with Lonoff’s former mistress Amy Bellette, a once-beautiful woman now ravaged by brain cancer, even more poignant, especially for the reader who recalls Nathan and Amy as they were – youthful, opinionated, looking ahead to a bright future – 50 years earlier, during the events related in The Ghost Writer.
If Exit Ghost isn’t a consistently engaging work, that’s partly because of the demands of its meta-fictional narrative. Roth demonstrates his protagonist’s waning powers through a series of embarrassingly trite exchanges that Zuckerman imagines between himself and Jamie, and while one gets the point, the fact remains that these passages take up considerable space in the Philip Roth novel that we are now reading. (They also raise a tricky question: who has authored the other sections of Exit Ghost, where the quality of the writing rivals that in the best Zuckerman-narrated books? Is the still-vital Roth ghost-writing these passages for a Zuckerman who is no longer equal to the task?)
But even a lesser Roth can be more provocative than the work of most other writers, and there’s much here to savour, starting with Zuckerman's terse and chilling reply to the question "What is it like to be seventy?" and the early passage where he reflects on the changes in New York City over the 11 years he’s been away – notably how everyone walking on the streets seems to be talking into a cell phone.
What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say – so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? ... That the immense loneliness of human beings should produce this boundless longing to be heard, and the accompanying disregard for being overheard – well, having lived largely in the era of the telephone booth, whose doors could be tightly pulled shut, I was impressed by the conspicuousness of it all...Conceptually speaking, there’s nothing so remarkable about these thoughts – many of us have them at some time or the other, and a much lesser writer than Roth could handle them nearly as well – but what I liked was the sense they provide of how distanced Zuckerman has become from the world. This becomes even more pronounced in his observations about how scantily women dress these days, and it’s unsettling, because we don’t expect a writer like Nathan Zuckerman – a careful, empathetic chronicler of human strengths and weaknesses – to display such conservatism, to be so judgemental about and resistant to inevitable changes (even if they are changes we don't see as desirable, like people constantly talking on cellphones on the street). It’s another pointer to his deterioration, physical and mental, and it adds to this book’s epitaph-like quality.
I also enjoyed the essay-within-the-book, which denounces the laziness of “cultural journalism”(“tabloid gossip disguised as an interest in the arts”), and especially the final encounter between Zuckerman and his young nemesis Kliman, where we realise that Zuckerman’s objections stem at least partly from his recognition that Kliman isn’t so different from what he himself was as a young man (“a literary lunatic. Another one. Like me, like Lonoff, like all whose most violent passion is for a book”). We see here a feeble, confused old writer near the end of his days, reduced to questioning everything he thought he knew about literature and life. In that final argument, the case Kliman makes is at least as persuasive as anything Zuckerman can say.
Needless to say, much of this is bleak material, but Exit Ghost is a reminder that a book written by a great wordsmith can be uplifting even if the subject matter is unrelentingly dark. On this evidence, there are more good things to come. Nathan Zuckerman might be done and dusted, but Philip Roth, now 74 and still powering along, still has a few more ghosts to show to the door.