By Philip Roth
When, in what is being billed as his final appearance, Philip Roth’s great protagonist and alter ego Nathan Zuckerman appears fixated on Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow-Line you can be sure it means something important. Conrad’s novella is a coming-of-age tale, with the titular line dividing youth from maturity. It is a tale that seeks to describe the experience of becoming a man. In Exit Ghost a similar threshold of derangement is imagined at the end of life, “from maturity into something else,” the process, in Zuckerman’s case, of physically coming to terms with the loss of function of what has for so long defined him as a man.
That is, his penis: “The once rigid instrument of procreation was now like the end of a pipe you see sticking out of a field somewhere, a meaningless piece of pipe that spurts and gushes intermittently, spitting forth water to no end, until a day arrives when somebody remembers to give the valve an extra turn that shuts the damn sluice down.” Which is a wonderful way of saying that the 71-year-old Zuckerman, veteran of prostate surgery and “eviscerated by impotence,” has lost bladder control and is now simply waiting for his entire system (the valve being his heart) to shut down. It’s a situation similar to another of Roth’s recurring characters, David Kepesh, in The Dying Animal. For Kepesh, sex is pretty much the only meaningful experience life has to offer. Desire is the “aesthetic response” to “living beauty,” making it the spark of artistic creation. And since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the real muse is between our legs, now relegated in Zuckerman’s case to the role of “a spigot of wrinkled flesh.” An exaggeratedly virile young man here named Richard Kliman accuses Zuckerman of smelling of decay and death, leaving our bediapered hero complaining that “All I smelled of was urine.” But Kliman’s nose has it right. That smell of urine signals the real end of the road.
Without his spunk gland Zuckerman is one of the walking dead, a ghost. His status as a “revenant” is also established by his coming back to New York City after a self-imposed exile of eleven years on a Massachusetts mountaintop. He stalks the streets of the great city an “eviscerated stranger” (that word again) appalled by the new ubiquity of cellphones and bereft of desire for the consumer goods on prominent display. He is a figure out of place and time, having “ceased to inhabit not just the great world but the present moment.”
Of course literature has long ceased to inhabit either. Much of the plot of Exit Ghost deals with Zuckerman’s attempt to ward off the young enthusiast Kliman’s attempt to write a revealing biography of E. I. Lonoff, an author Zuckerman idolized in his youth. That nobody reads Lonoff any more is a given, though apparently his books are still in print. Lonoff himself is long dead, but his ghost is channeled through the cancer-addled psyche of his muse Amy Bellette. And what he has to say is curt and to to the point: “Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era.”
Which is E. I. Lonoff channeling Philip Roth.
What draws Zuckerman to the city is the false hope of a medical procedure that will fix his “bladder sphincter control.” False because hope (and its partner freedom) are the product of desire. Science can’t provide a cure. There’s really only one kind of medicine for Zuckerman, as there was for Kepesh.
Reluctant to appear to interrogate her, I merely looked her way. Her sensual presence was strong – perhaps she kept herself on the thin side so it wouldn’t be stronger. Or maybe so it would, since her breasts weren’t those of an undernourished woman. She wore jeans and a low-cut, lacy silk blouse that resembled a little lingerie top – that was a little lingerie top, I realized upon looking again . . .
Her name is Jamie Logan, and she is rich, young, literary, slim and stacked. Game on.
Alas for poor Z., the game this time is all in his head. Unable to perform the deed, he imaginatively translates the story of his seduction into pages of dialogue scribbled on hotel stationary. One is left guessing how much of it is invented, as Zuckerman’s notes, which are meant to provide an aide de mémoir for his dodgy brain, may themselves be a form of fiction. The literary tricks of earlier Roth metafictions are now presented as the function of a mind that has become somewhat unstuck. Within the terms of the novel, Zuckerman is threatened with another kind of impotence, one immune to the Viagra of the chore book:
Nor did vigilance seem much help against what felt less like the erosion of memory than like a slide into senselessness, as though something diabolical residing in my brain but with a mind of its own – the imp of amnesia, the demon of forgetfulness, against whose powers of destruction I could bring no effective counterforce – were prompting me to suffer these lapses solely for the fun of watching me degenerate, the ultimate gleeful goal to turn someone whose acuity as a writer was sustained by memory and verbal precision into a pointless man.
Pointless. Get it? He had to go out of the way a bit for that one.
Exit Ghost marks a return for Roth to the complex narrative games of the earlier Zuckerman books, and away from the more distanced, objective storytelling in the recent American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain). But the interweaving of Zuckerman’s frayed consciousness and failing powers with Roth’s own sense of the valedictory does make for an intriguing project. No longer immersed in – or for that matter even much concerned with – the real world, the indeterminacy of Zuckerman’s mental wonderland also highlights the traps of biographical criticism, a subject that comes in for some harsh treatment here. Indeed, the book often wanders into discursive, essay-like sidetracks, as when Zuckerman barrels off into an appreciation of George Plimpton. At times like these the reader almost feels trapped by eruptions of self-absorbed garrulity. As, unfortunately, one does whenever things turn to matters of sex. Paradoxically, given his reputation, Roth is at his least interesting when it comes to writing about sex. In his imagined pursuit of Jamie, Zuckerman travels what is by now a well-worn rut of ruttishness. And it’s a dry wank to boot.
Zuckerman at 71 is a diminished thing, so it’s not surprising that he fails to exit on a high note. Rather, like an aged figure receiving a lifetime achievement award and then turning to leave by the wrong side of the stage we see him held for a moment by one of the beautiful and vacant hostesses and then gracefully redirected off camera, back to his lonely mountain top. This is no country for old men. Life’s second shadow-line leads from maturity to “something else.” Not the insanity of the passions, but a feeble and introverted bit of dementia.
Review first published online October 31, 2007.