Monday, December 24, 2007

Zuckerman Unmanned

Looks like my New Year's resolution has to be to post more regularly. Meanwhile, here's a review that appeared in the December 29th issue of Tehelka.

EXIT GHOST Philip Roth

One of the pleasures of reading Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost is that of elegiac resonance. Roth has stated that this is to be the last book featuring Nathan Zuckerman, his alter ego – or “alter brain”, as he once put it – and from its pages arises the whiff of Zuckerman’s past exploits, as well as reverberations of the author’s other work.

Ever since – and perhaps because of -- the conservative Jewish community’s outrage at his short story ‘Defender of the Faith’, which continued with Goodbye Columbus and erupted with Portnoy’s Complaint, one of Roth’s concerns has been to explore the connections between a writer’s work and his life in unshackled prose, leaving behind the Jamesian methods of Letting Go or When She Was Good. And one of the best illustrations of this teasing interplay between fiction and reality is in the character of Nathan Zuckerman.

Though Zuckerman first featured in the early sections of My Life as a Man in 1974, he only appeared as a full-blown character with 1979’s The Ghost Writer. Here, as an apprentice novelist, he sets off to meet his idol, the reclusive E.I. Lonoff (thought to be inspired by Bernard Malamud). In Lonoff’s house, Zuckerman loses himself in fantasies of marrying Amy Bellette, another guest, believing her to be Anne Frank, who has escaped the Nazis to live incognito in the United States. On such audacious conceits has Roth built his career.

Over the years, Zuckerman appeared in seven other novels, sometimes as a protagonist (Zuckerman Unbound, The Counterlife) and sometimes as a receptacle of the tales of others (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist). We last encountered him in 2000’s The Human Stain, when he had become a Lonoff-like recluse himself, an author in his 60s living in New England and recovering from prostate cancer.

In Exit Ghost the 71-year-old Zuckerman leaves his retreat in the Berkshires and travels to New York after 11 years for the treatment of incontinence brought about by prostate surgery. From the beginning, he makes his disruption with the modern world clear: “I don’t go to dinner parties, I don’t go to movies, I don’t watch television, I don’t own a cell phone or a VCR or a DVD player or a computer. I continue to live in the Age of the Typewriter and have no idea what the World Wide Web is”.

In New York, Roth’s Rip Van Winkle encounters a ghost from his past, none other than Amy Bellette, now 75 and recovering from a brain tumor (an echo of The Anatomy Lesson, in which Zuckerman’s mother suffers from a similar ailment). After spotting a classified advertisement issued by a couple on the Upper West Side wanting to exchange residences for a year, he decides to take up their offer: they are Jamie Logan and Billy Davidoff, fledgling writers themselves, who want to leave the city in the aftermath of 9/11. He’s also plagued by freelance journalist Richard Kliman, writing a biography of E.I. Lonoff after supposedly unearthing a dark secret from his past.

In one final attempt to grasp life’s possibilities, Zuckerman finds himself hopelessly drawn to the 30-year-old Jamie; wanting to re-establish contact with Amy; and needing to put a stop to Richard’s investigations. This bleakly comic and painfully tragic tale of Zuckerman unmanned is leavened by extracts from his writing, comprising flirtatious conversations with Jamie. Unfortunately, this merely resembles a watered-down version of Roth’s earlier Deception.

The theme of mortality and waning powers is strong here, as in the spare Everyman; in addition, there are observations on the work of Eliot, Conrad and Hemingway, among others, buttressing the ideas Roth raises about the truth of art versus the intrusiveness of life.

Understandably, Roth’s sentences have lost some of that trademark Celine-like edge, and some sections of the novel are digressive – such as Billy’s account of Jamie’s upbringing or the details of George Plimpton’s career and funeral. But though Exit Ghost doesn’t quite compare with the earlier Zuckerman novels, there’s still enough vigour in this swan song to render it compelling.

Good night, Nathan. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

No comments: