I had an excuse all ready to explain to myself why I started reading Philip Roth’s new novel Exit Ghost before I read the previous book in the ‘series’, The Anatomy Lesson. It was that I knew that reading about Roth’s supposed alter ego Nathan Zuckerman in old age and infirmity would be so depressing (remember The Dying Animal? Remember Everyman?) that I’d be grateful to travel back in time and visit him afterwards in fuller life. So that’s the excuse. Really, of course, the reason was that my weakness for a new book won out over my orderly sense that the novels should be read chronologically. Who can resist a new book? I can’t fool me.
But the expectation of relentless grimness, and the stark cover design by Milton Glaster (better known for designing another piece of American iconography) are deceptive. Exit Ghost is a fluent and warm book, elegiac but moving, in which a man who has been around almost the entire length of Roth’s career as a writer, struggles against coming to terms with his ageing and mortality.
Nathan Zuckerman had moved away from New York to be alone as a writer, and “to be rid of the lingering consequences of a life’s mistakes.”
I had banished my country, been myself banished from erotic contact with women, and was lost through battle fatigue to the world of love. I had issued an admonition. I was out from under my life and times. … I lived, by choice, where I could no longer be drawn down into the disappointments.
Eleven years later, in 2004, he returns to the city to have treatment for the incontinence he has suffered since a cancer op, hoping to leave with “the chance of exerting somewhat more control over my urine flow than an infant.” When there, he finds himself haunted by elements from his past life (and past books): Amy Bellette and E.I. Lonoff, from The Ghost Writer, feature prominently on and off stage. Zuckerman revisits Lonoff’s books while trying to rebuff a pushy journalist who wants to write Lonoff’s biography; and the result shows that Roth is as gifted a reader as he is a writer:
When you undertake an experiment like this after spending twenty or thirty years away from a writer’s work, you can’t be sure what you’re going to turn up, about either the datedness of the once admired writer or the naivete of the enthusiast you once were. But by midnight I was no less convinced than I was in the 1950s that the narrow range of Lonoff’s prose and the restricted scope of his interests and the unyielding restraint he employed, rather than collapsing a story’s implications and diminishing its impact, produced instead the enigmatic reverberations of a gong, reverberations that left one marvelling at how so much gravity and so much levity could be joined, in so small a space, to a skepticism so far-reaching. It was precisely the limitation of means that made each little story not something stultifying but a feat of magic, as if a folk tale or fairy tale or a Mother Goose rhyme were inwardly illuminated by the mind of Pascal.
Speaking of the restricted scope of his interests, Zuckerman is also haunted by a new person in his life: a beautiful young writer named Jamie Logan, with whom Zuckerman agrees in a “rash moment” to have a house-exchange. He will return to the city for a year and Jamie and her husband will retire to Zuckerman’s country home. He immediately realises that he wants Jamie to swap not houses but husbands:
In the country there was nothing tempting my hope. I had made peace with my hope. But when I came to New York, in only hours New York did what it does to people – awakened the possibilities. Hope breaks out.
Zuckerman knows that nothing can come of his new obsession with Jamie – his cancer treatment has left him impotent as well as incontinent – and so he is haunted by his own past as a virile male, and by the knowledge that the future, which once held these possibilities, is now such a limited thing. This does not stop his attachment to her (“There is no situation that infatuation is unable to feed on. Looking at her provided a visual jolt – I allowed her into my eyes the way a sword swallower swallows a sword”).
Instead, Zuckerman writes dialogues between him and Jamie, inventing a present for them in place of the impossible future. These are at their best heartbreaking, and affecting even when making uncomfortable and creepy reading: we know Zuckerman is leching his last, reduced finally to the life of the mind. He envies her husband and the man he believes to be her lover (“unknowing youth, savage with health and armed to the teeth with time”). Meanwhile Jamie is more concerned about the Bush-Kerry election, which Zuckerman has ignored (“I had decided no longer to be overtaken every four years by the emotions of a child – the emotions of a child and the pain of an adult”). To those who share Jamie’s (and, from interviews, Roth’s) antipathy for Bush, it will be a comfort to recognise that books like this will be read by generations to come and will provide the first draft of history.
Exit Ghost is a filling and mature book, replete with literary references from the title onward (and many of which I missed, judging from this valuable interview with Roth about the book, which contains some spoilers). Almost every character, appearing or referred to, is a writer. There are occasional humps in the road, like the biographical essay on George Plimpton, which both fits and doesn’t quite (“He died as we all do: as a rank amateur”). It’s hard to deny that reading this novel will be a richer experience if you already know The Ghost Writer, though it’s not essential as Roth (and Zuckerman) fills us in on the characters’ pasts. On the other hand, reading Exit Ghost first will reveal many of the events in the earlier book.
To me the reading of Exit Ghost felt like the moment when I as a reader finally had a full appreciation of Roth as a writer. This late appreciation of his stature will be nothing to him, but it means the world to me. And speaking of late, if Roth were to produce nothing else, what better valediction could there be for his writing life than this book, speaking of the late life of a writer and man, with the closing words “Gone for good”? But Roth happily is still writing – perhaps not happily – and at work on his next book. So “remorse can wait.”