Exit Ghost

  • Review
By – November 10, 2011

With Exit Ghost, Philip Roth near­ly com­pletes a fic­tion­al jour­ney begun fifty years ago. Then, his sub­ject was com­ing of age; now, it is going of age. Then, it assert­ed ram­rod sex as a vital com­po­nent of self; now, it must watch the self crum­ble with the body, as that vital com­po­nent limps off into exile. Roth’s var­i­ous sur­ro­gates, their Jew­ish IDs cut into their flesh, have locat­ed self large­ly with­in the body, and have chafed at desire lin­ger­ing beyond sex­u­al capac­i­ty. Nov­el­ist Nathan Zuckerman’s cir­cum­cised flesh has mon­i­tored his own and his char­ac­ters’ entries into pas­toral Amer­i­ca. But, for the last four Zuck­er­man nov­els, Nathan has been left impo­tent and incon­ti­nent by surgery for prostate can­cer. We meet him here at age sev­en­ty- one, self-iso­lat­ed in grief over his inevitable decrepi­tude, review­ing his own ghost­ly cross­ings of the shad­ow lines that sep­a­rate the ages of man. Tempt­ed briefly to write him­self back across a line into the full­ness of life, he is final­ly forced by phys­i­cal real­i­ty to exit into the killing field that is old age.

Can­cer — sick cells over­whelm­ing healthy cells — infests Exit Ghost, infil­trat­ing the human body, the body politic, the world of pub­lish­ing, where the cor­pus of a seri­ous writer’s work can be eat­en away by scan­dal-biog­ra­phy. It is not a new image. Roth gives can­cer-strick­en women with strong sens­es of self key roles through­out his lat­er fic­tion, most notably in Decep­tion (1990), Sabbath’s The­ater (1995), and The Dying Ani­mal (2001). Their sex­u­al­i­ty is part of their strength, a defense against the body’s counter-flow toward death. In los­ing them Roth’s pro­tag­o­nists lose a part of them­selves that has thrived in rec­i­p­ro­cal endear­ment. Desire for that phys­i­cal dimen­sion does not reduce these women to objects, the easy charge of sur­face fem­i­nists; rather, it adds a pow­er to their self-aware­ness that makes them rich and their loss impov­er­ish­ing to their men. Ill­ness in Roth’s men, if it does not kill, moves them across a shad­ow line into dimin­ished viril­i­ty and inti­ma­tions of ever-near­ing mor­tal­i­ty. In this nov­el Nathan will meet a can­cer-deplet­ed for­mer object of his desire and a healthy young stim­u­lus impos­si­ble to obtain. 

After eleven years of liv­ing in plas­tic-lined dia­per pads in his wood­ed Berk­shire cab­in safe from social embar­rass­ment, Nathan has learned to ignore the great world, like his first lit­er­ary hero, E. I. Lonoff of The Ghost Writer (1979). But inex­plic­a­bly, against his own rea­son, he suc­cumbs to med­ical hype for a par­tial sphinc­ter restora­tion and dri­ves to New York for treat­ment. The city quick­ens his social pulse and he answers an ad for a swap of homes with a young Upper West Side cou­ple, would-be fic­tion writ­ers. Jamie is a Texas-oil-heiress-turned-Demo­c­rat deter­mined to escape anoth­er 9/11 strike on the city by find­ing a retreat in the coun­try. Bil­ly is Jew­ish, uxo­ri­ous, trans­fixed, as Nathan will be, by the relaxed sex­u­al­i­ty of his wife. The sto­ry takes place dur­ing the eve of and day fol­low­ing the Bush 2004 elec­tion victory. 

The plot has a back sto­ry in The Ghost Writer (1979), where Nathan, then a fledg­ling writer, had spent a night at the house of E. I. Lonoff. He had over­heard Lonofff’s sex­u­al encounter with young Amy Bel­lette, whom Nathan then ghost wrote into the role of a sur­viv­ing Anne Frank, a poten­tial bride who would restore his stand­ing among Jews. Lonoff, nev­er a nov­el­ist but arguably the world’s best short sto­ry writer, hasn’t been read for decades. He had lived through his dying years with Amy. Now, in a Mt. Sinai Hos­pi­tal cafe­te­ria, Nathan spies the object of his youth­ful fan­ta­sy, already in her mid-sev­en­ties, drawn, wrin­kled, can­cer-reduced, a side of her head scarred and shaven. Lat­er, he is reached on his hotel phone by Kli­man, a young aggres­sive would-be biog­ra­ph­er of Lonoff, who has got­ten Nathan’s num­ber from a for­mer lover, and friend, Jamie. He and the young cou­ple had heard Zuck­er­man lec­ture on Lonoff at Har­vard over a decade before, and Jamie sees Kliman’s bio­graph­ic ambi­tion as con­sis­tent with Nathan’s ven­er­a­tion. Kli­man has a man­u­script of an abort­ed Lonoff nov­el, the old master’s one mis­step out of his true genre, and finds in it grounds for alleg­ing a broth­er-sis­ter inces­tu­ous episode in Lonoff’s youth. He has also been hec­tor­ing Amy for more mate­r­i­al, but she will have none of Kliman’s pick-axing Lonoff’s hal­lowed ground. Kli­man gives Amy Nathan’s num­ber in hopes of using him to soft­en her resis­tance. Nathan, who rec­og­nizes the incest device as but a failed bor­row­ing from Nathaniel Hawthorne and who stands on prin­ci­ple for autho­r­i­al pri­va­cy, joins forces with Amy — two weak straws against the pub­lish­ing world’s sick winds of change. 

When Zuck­er­man here meets Amy Bel­lette, she is beyond sex­u­al avail­abil­i­ty and he beyond per­for­mance in more than fan­ta­sy. But his sub­ver­sive tal­ent for imag­in­ing sil­ver lin­ings and their com­bined sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an fail­ings of mem­o­ry pro­vide not only con­flict with the death march but also humor, how­ev­er grim. In a final nod to Eros, Nathan fan­ta­sizes an affair with Jamie, even goes so far as to invite her to his hotel, but set­tles for com­pos­ing scenes for a play called He and She” — a set of plot-sus­pend­ing inser­tions— in which he probes her vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and devel­ops their rela­tion­ship to the brink of fruition. Then in a com­ic stroke, his phys­i­cal real­i­ty (the med­ical pro­ce­dure has been worth­less) mocks his desire, aborts the play, and ends the nov­el with Nathan retreat­ing to his woods. 

The rich­ness of Exit Ghost resides deep inside the shell of its plot. Roth has always been an inte­ri­or nar­ra­tor, engag­ing ideas, hav­ing pro­tag­o­nists ques­tion their own first con­clu­sions, com­mit acts they have just declared ridicu­lous, or defend inex­plic­a­ble moves as just part of their being. Remem­ber Smilesburger’s defense [Oper­tion Shy­lock (1993)]: “ I did what I did to you because I did what I did to you’ and if that is not the truth, it’s as close as I know how to come to it. I do what I do because I do what I do.’” Or Philip’s dec­la­ra­tion about his writ­ing in Decep­tion: I write for a sim­ple and patho­log­i­cal rea­son — because I can­not stop myself! I write what I write the way I write it.…” Here, in a doctor’s office, Nathan utters, I sat there because I sat there, flip­ping through mag­a­zines…”. Roth’s char­ac­ters, long after Port­noy, resist analy­sis. He will not pluck out the heart of their mys­tery. Most­ly, he hon­ors the reader’s intel­li­gence. His best social crit­i­cism comes indi­rect­ly, as in the metas­ta­sis of a mil­lion walk­ing cell phones reduc­ing a city’s mind to mum­bling iso­la­tion and sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to the kind of sound-bite manip­u­la­tion that could swift-boat Ker­ry and reelect Bush. 

But Roth is not always sub­tle about pub­lic issues. We some­times hear his voice pro­gram­ming his char­ac­ters on pol­i­tics or hand­ing them brief­ing books on back­ground sub­jects. Acom­mon com­plaint about Roth’s recent fic­tion is its seem­ing over-research. Who needs to know all that stuff about gloves (Amer­i­can Pas­toral) or wrist­watch­es (Every­man)? When Jamie and Nathan agree on the nation­al dis­as­ter that Bush has cre­at­ed, it’s hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate their voic­es. When Kli­man and Nathan com­bine in a dozen pages of praise for the late George Plimp­ton, the tone does not mod­u­late, though Roth gives Nathan asides about Kliman’s motives. One some­times feels Roth is writ­ing for his­to­ry from his new­ly assured posi­tion as the only liv­ing writer to have his work pub­lished in a com­pre­hen­sive, defin­i­tive edi­tion by the Library of Amer­i­ca. Yet he can play­ful­ly mock even that achieve­ment by hav­ing the over-zeal­ous Kli­man aver that Lonoff belongs there too. 

Roth’s great strength has always been in writ­ing about what he knows in his bones. If it has tripped his crit­ics into mis­read­ing his fic­tion as mere biog­ra­phy, that is tes­ti­mo­ny to its rich empa­thy. The cer­tain­ty of death and the stages of decline into its final embrace are uni­ver­sal sub­jects. Roth’s real­iza­tion of them in Exit Ghost is a mas­ter­ful act of imag­in­ing just beyond the mar­gin of lived experience. 

Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

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