Saturday, June 30, 2012

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

I have completed all of Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books! Exit Ghost is the ninth entry in the series and as per Roth, the last. This work is a fine farewell to Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s long running protagonist that some also consider his alter ego. As this novel wraps things up and involves connections with some of what has gone before, I would strongly recommend at least reading the first Zuckerman book, Ghost Writer and preferably the first four books which are collected under one volume, Zuckerman Bound, before attempting this one.

In 2004, after eleven years of self imposed exile in rural Massachusetts, Zuckerman has finally returned to the formally familiar New York City. At age seventy-one the fictional writer of fiction is falling apart both mentally and physically. He is both impotent as well as incontinent and is also beginning to show signs of mental decay, likely the result of Alzheimer’s disease.

Zuckerman encounters a host of both new and old characters.  He meets a thirtyish couple, Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan. The married pair are struggling writers whose fear of a post 09/11 terrorist attack is counterbalanced by their strong ire and despair over the Bush administration and its policies. Zuckerman becomes smitten and somewhat obsessed with Jamie. However, the former womanizer is reduced to writing intellectualized romantic fantasies of an encounter with her in lieu of the real thing.

Zuckerman also encounters for the first time in nearly fifty years, Amy Bellette. This is where an intimate connection is established with the first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer. In that work, set in 1956, a young Zuckerman is invited to the  home of his literary idol E.I. Lonoff. During his visit Zuckerman witnesses the breakup of Lonoff’s marriage precipitated by an affair with Lonoff’s young protégée Amy. At this time Zuckerman is also erotically and intellectually drawn to Amy. In a plot twist related to Zuckerman’s ongoing theme of shifting identities, Zuckerman comes to believe in a strange fantasy that Amy is actually Ann Frank who has survived the Holocaust. Zuckerman does eventually come to realize that this belief is apocryphal.

In Exit Ghost we learn that following the events described in The Ghost Writer, Lonoff and Amy married. In the ensuing four years Lonoff, who had previously only penned short stories, was working on a novel. Progress on the book was cut short by his death. An aged Amy is now poverty stricken and declining due to a brain tumor.

Richard Kliman, a friend of Jamie, is badgering both Zuckerman and Amy as he is attempting to put together a biography of Lonoff that will highlight a supposed scandalous affair between the writer and his sister. Richard believes that the aborted novel was a fictionalized account of the incestuous relationship. Richard is aggressive and arrogant. Zuckerman is appalled by Richard’s ways but he does remind our protagonist of his own younger self. Both Zuckerman and Amy philosophically object to Richard’s digging for scandal as well as the entire concept of searching for real events and people when attempting to explain the work of a fiction writer. The ever-cagey Roth seems to provide evidence in support of both sides to this argument.

There are so many themes presented in this book that it is difficult to coherently summarize them all. The motifs also interact and intertwine with one another further defying systematic description. Of course there is Roth’s old standby of identity and people’s perception of it. In addition, there is the question of whether fiction is a mirror of reality and real people and events, verses being only a product of a writer’s imagination. There is also an exploration of the issues surrounding once young and vibrant people coping with physical and mental decline. There are serious ruminations on the philosophical ramifications on isolation and voluntary withdrawal from the world and its travails.

Roth also delves into the concept of an older person trying to connect and come to terms with both the past and the present. There are multiple references to Joseph Conrad’s “The Shadow Line”. I have not read that work, but a little research leads me to believe that it was concerned with related themes.

As if Roth did not have enough to cram in here, Exit Ghost is also very political, excoriating the American right wing. At one point Zuckerman describes George W. Bush as an “Imbecile King”.

Since this is the last that time that we are likely to visit Nathan Zuckerman I will try to focus on his character here as well as in the proceeding books. Though never a simplistic persona, Roth seems to be suggesting that there are two overriding aspects that defined Zuckerman’s life as well as his own perception of himself. First, his gift at writing great and meaningful fiction that is a reflection of the real world. Second, as we saw in previous books, he was an enormously promiscuous womanizer. Zuckerman had affair after affair, sometimes simultaneously with a vast assortment of women. The trysts were only interspaced with a string of short lived and unsuccessful marriages.

Eleven years prior to the events of Exit Ghost Zuckerman became impotent which put an end to his sexual and emotional escapades and was one of several factors that prompted his withdrawal and isolation from the world. As this novel proceeds, it is apparent to both Zuckerman and the reader that senility is closing in and that he is now also losing his ability to write.

Zuckerman is strongly attracted to Jamie who he knows that he cannot have for many reasons. I get the sense that he feels that in his younger days he would have found it easy to seduce this woman. Roth however throws out some hints that he may hold a distorted vision of his former powers. Once again we see some difference in perception of self verses reality.

Roth’s books often contain fictions within fictions. In what is likely to be his last creative piece, Zuckerman is writing a short play titled “He and She” about a flirtation between himself and Jamie. What makes this fiction interesting is that it is not completely off the wall, but it does vary from reality subtly. For Zuckerman, writing these variations and extrapolations on reality is a part of who he is and how he exists in the world. At one point he ruminates on the subject.

“But isn't one's pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most. “

Jamie’s character in “He and She” is different, but only a little different, from the real women. Again, the theme of perception verses reality rears its head as some aspects of the story are based upon false impressions that Zuckerman has drawn. Of course the people that I am referring to as “real” are fictional characters themselves in Exit Ghost. This confusion is clearly Roth playing with the idea of storytelling and identity again.

Jamie, in “real” life, is confident about her physical attractiveness. However, her fictionalized persona is just a little more self assured and sexually confident then the actual  “real” woman. Zuckerman’s fictional Jamie is likely having an extramarital affair with Richard, where in reality Jamie seems to be faithful to her husband.

Finally in reality, Zuckerman attempts to seduce Jamie over the phone and induce her to visit his hotel room. He fails in his attempt. In his fictional account however, Zuckerman secedes in convincing her. As she is on her way to the liaison, the fictional Zuckerman, who is also impotent in the tale as well, flees the hotel and New York before she arrives, having lost his abilities both sexually and creatively. The fictional Zuckerman, and presumably the real Zuckerman, whose former powers have vanished, will return to isolation, probably until the end.

The story within the story, “He and She” says a lot about Zuckerman. As he alludes to, Zuckerman perceives his fictions as reflections and interpretations of the real world, pain included. He is still egotistical enough to believe that he can talk a women forty years his junior into an affair, but is facing the reality that he would be unable to perform in such a situation. With the loss of his mental faculties and his inability to think and write, he withdraws himself from the world that he once thrived in. He does so without sentimentality or even a strong sense of despair. Since Roth has effectively conveyed these feelings in other characters, I must assume that this is no oversight here.

Once again, I have barely touched upon the themes, philosophic ruminations and character studies found in this work. Exit Ghost is an extraordinary swan song for Zuckerman. Like real life, many of the story threads as well as themes are left unresolved. For fans of Roth and the series, this is very well done finale.

Emma at Book around the Corner has some really good commentary up on this book here.

I also have also written commentary on other Zuckerman books, The Human Stain and I Married a Communist.


Guy Savage said...

I tried reading Portney's Complaint and didn't like it--although everyone else seems to have loved it. I'll admit that this one appeals, but as you say there's considerable backtracking to do, and that makes it daunting.

Caroline said...

This is one of those cases where I'm pretty sure, I like the review better than i would like the book.
I've read The Humain Stain and it was not for me at all.
While many of the things he wrote about and which you describe here as well in theory sound interesting, he seems to be an author who cannnot reach me.
I'm not saying I will never read another of his books again, i still have Sabbath's Theater here, but I'm not in a hurry.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I actually never read Portney's Complaint but it is next on my list of Roth books.

Though I do think that the it would be best to read the earlier Zuckerman books first, in my opinion those are great books in their own right and worth the read. I would say that if one does not like those, then one is not likely to like this one.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I would agree that if you did not like The Human Stain then you would not likely like this one. Roth tends to play on similar themes. One slight difference is that there is a little bit of the old humor characteristic of the earlier Zuckerman books in Exit Ghost that was not present in The Human Stain. This is a fairly minor point, however.

I have not read Sabbath's Theater but if I had to take a wild guess, I would expect it to explore similar territory.

Amritorupa Kanjilal said...

I just finished Portnoy's Complaint and have been mulling over writing a review for it. It was funny, but in a sort of sticky, claustrophobic way... overall the sort of book that is enjoyed best if not read all at once :)
Thank you for the wonderful review. Loved your blog. Following you now!
Please do visit my book blog , and if you like it, please follow!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Amritorupa. I have been perusing your blog and I am very impressed! I believe that I signed up to follow.

As I mentioned I have not yet read Portnoy's Complaint. I can imagine that it is very funny as it is of course a book written early in Roth's career. As I believe Miguel pointed out in another comment thread Roth does get less funny as he progresses through time.

Ryan said...

I love Philip Roth so much literary density. So many wonderfully articulated sentences. Makes me want to crack one right now.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan- Thanks commenting.

I agree. One aspect of Roth’s books that I failed to mention in my commentary is just how good his prose is. I find that he is a master crafter of sentences. As you mention, the meaning in his sentences is often dense, yet he often, but not always, use what I would I would describe as a light tenor. I also find that he uses many unusual words and I find myself referring to the dictionary often when I read him. Though he employs these uncommon words his writing never seems clunky or ponderous.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming to your review now that I've written my billet. I try not to be influenced by other reviews.

The quote you put is among the ones I selected.

Your review is excellent and explores a side of the book I didn't touch in mine.
It's full of interesting themes to explore, isn't it?

I need to read the other volumes of the Zuckerman series.

Guy: I'm surprised you didn't like Portnoy's Complaint. Too rife with sex? I would have thought you'd enjoy that type of character. I thought it was huge fun. (It quite expand my English vocabulary for dirty words, though)


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Thanks for the good word! There are so many angles to this book. I think that someone could easily write multiple essays on it!

I to try not to read other commentary until I have written mine for the same reason. I fear that I might actually inadvertently steal ideas.

I really liked all the Zuckerman books. You could start with Ghost Writer as it ties into this one and it is the first.

I am off to check out your commentary on your blog.

LMR said...

I'm currently reading this novel, so I haven't read your review completely lest it spoils things for me :)

I'll come back to it once I'm finished.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - That is funny as I do the same thing. I do not usually read the commentary of others until I finish the book and write mine. I would love to here your thoughts when you have finished.