by Philip Roth (2007)
A year ago today I posted a giddy review of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer. Since then I’ve slowly — but still giddily — made my way through the eight other Zuckerman books (you can find my thoughts on them all here). It was a fantastic project that I’d recommend to anyone. The Nathan Zuckerman alter-ego is one of the most ingenious vehicles ever used to study the elusive nature of identity and the influences that shape it, be they familial, ethnic, national, extra-marital, etc. It was completely unintended but fitting that on this anniversary of sorts I’d post the review of Roth’s last Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost, a book end for my first year blogging and a bookend for one of the best literary projects I’ve embarked on in that time or any time.
I was a little wary starting this book. On the one hand, the only book in the series that I didn’t like was I Married a Communist, so 7 out of 8 are pretty good odds suggesting I’d like this final one. But some reviews were less than glowing, and I hated the thought of tainting my Zuckerman experience with a final bitter swallow. Then again, how could I not read this? That was never a question.
The first few pages, while not bad, didn’t do much to encourage me. Where I found the prose in The Ghost Writer to be so vivacious and robust, here the prose felt a bit more stifled. The ideas were interesting, and I liked encountering Nathan Zuckerman, now 71 years old. He’s been living in the Berkshires, eschewing society, for eleven years. He’s incontinent following a surgery for prostate cancer, and he’s impotent. Little by little the prose sunk in. No, it’s not robust anymore. Neither is Zuckerman. If one of his sentences doesn’t feel as tight as it used to, neither does he have the quick brain he used to. But he does still know how to pinpoint a malady:
I hadn’t been in New York in eleven years. Other than for surgery in Boston to remove a cancerous prostate, I’d hardly been off my rural mountain road in the Berkshires in those eleven years and, what’s more, had rarely looked at a newspaper or listened to the news since 9/11, three years back; with no sense of loss — merely, at the outset, a kind of drought within me — I had ceased to inhabit not just the great world but the present moment. The impulse to be in it and of it I had long since killed.
After eleven impotent years on his own, Zuckerman hears of a simple treatment offered in New York that might help his incontinence (he knows his impotence, unfortunately, is incurable). Not sure it’s worth the trouble, Zuckerman nevertheless decides to undertake the treatment. Reentering “the present moment,” Zuckerman finds life teaming in New York, and he’s anxious to leave it.
All the city would add was everything I’d determined I no longer had use for: Here and Now.
Here and Now.
Then and Now.
The Beginning of the End of Now.
These were the lines that I jotted onto the scrap of paper where I’d previously written Amy’s name and the phone number of my new New York apartment. Titles for something. Perhaps this. Or should I just come right out with it — call it A Man in Diapers. A book about knowing where to go for your agony and then going there for it.
Completely by chance, Zuckerman runs into Amy Bellette, whom he hasn’t seen since the last few pages of The Ghost Writer, nearly fifty years earlier. She’s wearing a worn out, reworked hospital gown and her head is somewhat misshapen. He doesn’t go to her at that point, but just seeing her brings back his past. On a whim he frequently regrets afterwards, he decides to answer an ad in the New York Review of Books: a young writing couple wants to swap homes for a year. He goes to the apartment to meet the young couple and falls immediately in lust with the young wife, Jamie Logan. He finds it unbearably delightful and terrible. He at once wants to run away from and with her. Jamie has an ex-lover writing a biography on E.I. Lonoff, Zuckerman’s father / mentor for the night we experienced in The Ghost Writer. Already thoroughly enjoying myself, it is at this point that the book took off for me, becoming one of my favorites in the series.
Biography / identity is always an interesting underlying thread in the Zuckerman books. In The Ghost Writer we get Zuckerman’s fantastic self-serving yet profound alternate biography for Amy Bellette. In The Counterlife we get Zuckerman’s alternate biography / obituary for himself. In American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain we get biographies that are alternate, but we don’t know to what extent, and at this point Zuckerman doesn’t hide his view that the fiction is more true than the fact. In Exit Ghost we get Zuckerman’s alternate version of his conversations with Jamie Logan. And underlying all of this is the Nathan Zuckerman character as an autobiographical character for Philip Roth himself. Again, the line between fact and fiction is blurred, and we’ll never know just how much Roth sees himself in Zuckerman, though we do know Roth is having fun with just that blurred line. Biography is an ingenious strain that runs through already complex and tightly woven themes.
It is ironic, but Zuckerman, the master of biographies, all fictional, is livid that this importunate would-be biographer would dare tread on Lonoff under the pretext of bringing a forgotten literary master back to the light. While it is made worse that the young man plans to focus his biography on a secret Lonoff apparently hid all of his life, we get the sense that what Zuckerman is really trying to protect is his own biography. Biography as fiction, fiction as biography — has it ever been done better?
All of this leads to the elegiac resolution, typical yet sought after in all of these books. Zuckerman knows his death is just around the corner. Then his biography is no longer his own. He will have lost control of his story. And there’s that nagging possibility of losing control before death.
If one morning I should pick up the page I’d written the day before and find myself unable to remember having written it, what would I do? If I lost touch with my pages, if I could neither write a book nor read one, what would become of me? Without my work, what would be left of me?
This book came at a particularly poignant time in literary history, called by the importunate young biographer “The Twilight of the Gods.” We talk about Art Buchwald and George Plimpton, and, though he was still alive for a few months more when the book was published, Norman Mailer. And I read it just a few months after John Updike passed. All of these immortals now dead.
Humorously and unusually — that’s how George and his friends imagined themselves dying back before they believed they would, back when dying was just another idea to have fun with. “Oh, there’s death too!” But the death of George Plimpton was neither humorous nor unusual. It was no fantasy either. He died not in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium but in pajamas in his sleep. He died as we all do: as a rank amateur.