Friday, January 15, 2010

Sex And Death

A slightly edited version of this appeared in today's Mint Lounge


Given that there’s usually been a hallway of mirrors between Philip Roth’s life and his fiction, it’s hard not to think of this, his 30th novel, as an allegory for his own situation. “He’d lost his magic,” is how The Humbling begins, and though at 76, Roth’s output remains undimmed, his books have of late verged on the stark and the melancholy, dealing with loss of powers and imminent mortality.

This, of course, wasn’t always the case. The best of Roth’s novels feature characters who erupt with vitality, be it Alexander Portnoy or Mickey Sabbath. Even American Pastoral’s tragic, conflicted Swede Levov is tireless in his attempts to unravel the mystery of his daughter’s whereabouts. All that changed from 2006, with the elegiac Everyman – though glimmerings emerged in 2001’s The Dying Animal – and continued with Nathan Zuckerman’s swan song, Exit Ghost. Though Indignation’s innocent, hard-working Marcus Messner appeared to buck the trend, we now have the slim The Humbling.

Unfolding in three acts, the novel introduces us without any ado to the predicament of Simon Axler, “the last of the best of the classic American stage actors”. Now in his sixties, and facing the aftermath of a string of disastrous performances, Axler finds himself bereft of self-confidence and talent. His wife leaves him to stay with their son and, alone in his isolated dwelling in rural New York, Axler contemplates suicide with the aid of a shotgun he keeps in the attic. (At which point it would be wise to keep Chekhov’s admonition in mind: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”)

Pooh-poohing his agent’s plea that he sign on for a production of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Axler spends 26 days in a psychiatric facility bonding with the other inmates and attending art therapy sessions. Though the predicament of the others makes him realize that he is not alone in his helplessness, the retreat does little to restore his self-belief.

Much of this first section carries a convincing, compelling charge, but it's when Pegeen enters Axler's life that the narrative’s waters become muddied. She's the 40-year-old daughter of Axler's former theatre friends, has been in lesbian relationships from the time she was 23, and is just recovering from a messy break-up when she takes up with the aging actor.

Axler goes about remaking her, at least in externals, buying her clothes, lingerie, jewellery and shoes in “an orgy of spending and spoiling that suited them both just fine”. After a stylish, expensive haircut, there’s something of an epiphany: “Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other than who she was? Wasn’t he dressing her up in costume as though a costly skirt could dispose of nearly two decades of lived experience?” Ignoring this still, small voice, he convinces himself of the validity and longevity of the relationship, speaking to her parents and listening patiently to her accounts of what they have to say to her.

Here, the compressed, terse, almost sketchy, prose style that made the first part forceful isn't up to the job of delineating their affair. In particular, given the context, the sex scenes are blatant and verge on the ludicrous, involving a dildo, a cat-o-nine tails and, on one occasion, a threesome. (Not for nothing was a passage nominated for the Bad Sex award). It's not that Roth hasn't been transgressive about sex before -- that’s an understatement -- but here, there’s a grim almost voyeuristic tone completely lacking his earlier sauciness.

In addition, there’s the problematic portrayal of Pegeen as stereotypically butch, especially during the episode when the two pick up a woman at a bar. The stage now is set for the final act -- compelling again -- in which we witness the fallout of the liaison and the effects on Axler’s life, readying him for a last private performance.

Woody Allen, that other eminent chronicler of the Jewish American psyche, once typically remarked that the difference between sex and death is that with death, you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you. In taking sex and death as the themes of his late-stage novels, Roth shows that he’s better at the latter than the former.

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