Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Zuckerman Uncorked |
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Zuckerman Uncorked

In a Moebius striptease, the disrobing stripper is always on the point of getting dressed again, and there is no resolution to the revelation.

A Moebius striptease in written form, Philip Roth’s new novel Exit Ghost is purportedly his long-running character Nathan Zuckerman’s new novel, narrated in the first person. During the course of Nathan Zuckerman’s new novel, Zuckerman raises the question of just how far an author’s personal biography should be drawn into any discussion about his works of art. The answer seems to be that any reader who might want to do so must be a bit of a klutz.

But we get that answer only if we decide that Zuckerman is speaking for Roth when he, Zuckerman, seems to endorse the opinion of Amy Bellette, now old, grey and diseased but once the young mistress, helpmeet and nurse of Zuckerman’s mentor and hero E.I. Lonoff, that there is something crassly illiterate about any attempts even by scholars, let alone journalists, to trace the inspiration of her erstwhile lover’s works to his actual life. And what if Zuckerman doesn’t endorse her opinion? He quotes her at length, but without explicitly agreeing, even though the long letter in which she expresses her objections to biographical reductionism suggests that she can write an essay nearly as well as, say, Philip Roth.

Maybe Zuckerman is withholding judgement. He might well have reason to do so, because in Roth’s early Zuckerman works, notably The Ghost Writer (first published in 1979, and hey, there’s the ghost already), Zuckerman was probing the secrets about the connection between Lonoff’s work and his real life even as a character in this new book, Richard Kliman, is hoping, by revealing the facts about Lonoff’s real life, to win for the neglected Lonoff the fame that he has always lacked, and thereby get his works republished in the Library of America (the same distinguished imprint which, we alert readers will note, is currently republishing the complete works of none other than Philip Roth — no victim of neglect he.) Hoping to? Insisting. There is no getting rid of Kliman. He just keeps on coming back.

As portrayed by Zuckerman, Kliman is irredeemably obnoxious. But room is left for the possibility that the young Zuckerman might once have been a bit less altruistic — a bit more ruthlessly ambitious all round — than he once reported himself as being in the first person, or was reported to be by Roth in the third person. (If you want to go back and check this out, the early, Zuckerman Bound sequence of Zuckerman novels are now published in a single, typically sumptuous volume from, you guessed it, the Library of America: but a warning — the name Zuckerman has the word “sugar” loosely buried within it, and once you give that old hunger a chance to burn again, you might not be able to stop.) What if the decaying Zuckerman, by heaping imprecations on the repellent Kliman, is simply refusing to recognize his pristine young self reborn? Complicated enough for you yet? We’re just getting started.

If Zuckerman ever decides that he was once, under his show of Chekhov-loving sensitivity, crassly illiterate to stalk Lonoff, then we might decide that we are crassly illiterate to ask whether Zuckerman’s state of health in this new novel has any connection to Roth’s in real life. In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman, whom we have known since he was young and potent, has had prostate surgery that has left him impotent, not to mention incontinent. (We might not mention it now, but we’re going to have to soon.) There is a beautiful young woman in the novel, Jamie Logan, who is willing to be made love to by the avowedly decrepit Zuckerman, but he deliberately fails to keep the appointment, or seems to. (By then he is talking about himself as if he were a character in a play. Maybe he nailed her, but rigged the dialogue to suggest he didn’t. See my forthcoming paper How Unreal was Thereal McCoy? Strategic Female Fantasy Figures in the Disguised Biography of Philip Roth.)

Is Roth saying, through Zuckerman, that the only reason he, Roth, might fail to show up for such a date is that he is no longer capable of going through with the consequences? Are we allowed to ask whether the real-life Roth, who once had to stave off accusations of providing the model for his character Alexander Portnoy, is no longer in thrall to his virile member, if he ever was? (After all, he never actually said he was. He said Portnoy was.) In the last rumour I heard on the subject, one of the most luxuriantly beautiful young Australian female film stars had thrown herself at Roth’s feet lightly clad — I mean she was lightly clad, not Roth’s feet — and demanded satisfaction.

This rumour might have had no more substance than the one about the famous actor and the gerbil, but it travelled through cyberspace at the same speed, and for the same reason: it fitted the legend. Roth has been catnip for upmarket women all his life, and never not renowned for it. In London, when he lived there, Roth would enter a fashionable drawing room with Claire Bloom on his arm and you would wonder how he had got into the house without a band striking up “Hail to the Chief”.

Roth might never have been Alexander Portnoy, but the inventor of Alexander Portnoy, unless he was a studious lizard from outer space with limitless powers of telepathic imagination, was a male human being well schooled in carnal relationships with women. It is true that Zuckerman, even when all the books of his saga are taken together, falls short of being a full case of Portnovian satyriasis. Zuckerman lusts after many women, but he does not get to make them all. He gets to make notes on them all. He is a writer. In just such a way, Jay McInerney might have invented an alter ego who was a dietitian, and who lured all those fashion models up to his apartment in order to weigh them. How can we fail to ask whether or not Roth still has what it takes, if he presents us with a central character based on himself who has it no longer? But is the character really based on himself? Let’s go back to the beginning.

Before we do, we should note that there is no question of abandoning the quest for clarification. Exit Ghost is just too fascinating to leave alone. It was designed that way, like the Tar Baby. Actually — leaving all questions about authorial identity aside for the moment — this book is latterday Roth at his intricately thoughtful best, and a vivid reminder of why a dystopian satirical fantasy like The Plot Against America was comparatively weak. Roth has no business making up the world. His business is making up his mind, in the sense that his true material for inventing a pattern is self-exploration, not social satire.

Roth, speaking in propria persona, once echoed Tom Lehrer’s remark by saying that when Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Prize for Peace it was time to give up on satire. But for Roth it was always time to give up on satire. The world is too obviously out of whack for a writer of his quality to give it the best of his attention. He should reserve that for his own psyche, which is only subtly out of whack, but still would be if he were living in paradise. Unlike the world, his mentality can’t be fixed, so a self-assertive rage is inappropriate. Only self-analysis will serve, and to pursue that without solipsism is the continuing challenge. Roth gets as close as anyone ever has to being clinically detached about spreading his own brains all over the operating table. But hold it there. We were going to start again.

And we have to start with the absorbent pads stuffed down the shorts. Zuckerman is leaking yellow water. Doing so, he has run for harbour. To change the metaphor, he has run for cover. He is somewhere up in the Berkshires near Tanglewood, not far from where none other than E.I. Lonoff once holed up to keep the inquisitive literary world at bay. (The possibility that Amy Bellette might really have been Anne Frank would have made the literary world’s investigators no less curious, but in this volume Roth has given up on that one.) When Zuckerman comes downtown to see the doctor, he avoids Ground Zero. He no longer wants to keep up with the news, even that news. (“I’ve served my tour.”) But he’s still not done with Lonoff.

At the Strand bookshop, Zuckerman puts together, for under $100, a complete spare set of Lonoff’s first editions. (There was my chance to meet Zuckerman. I could well have been in the Strand at the same time, adding to my row of Philip Roth hardbacks. If they had been first editions, they would have cost me thousands. Was that Zuckerman, the tall, grizzled patriarch in the Rare Book section on the fourth floor who was going through that stack of New Yorkers with the original Roger Angell baseball articles? But wait a second: Zuckerman is a ghost.)

In Saul Bellow’s first post-Nobel novel The Dean’s December, mortal fear centred on the colon. (“It’s serious enough for me to be wearing the bag.”) In Roth’s Exit Ghost, it centres on the prostate, or anyway on where the prostate used to be. The bearer of the wound can reach no accommodation with his loss. If I can speak for the outside world, which is where I come from, this is the thematic area where the current generation of magisterial American male writers who are now making the last preparations for their immortality — Roth, Vidal, Mailer, Updike — come closest to evincing a common national characteristic.

This glittering crew, a Team America that not even Henry James and Edith Wharton put together could possibly have foreseen, are the most commanding bunch of representatives American literary culture has yet had, but there is something about American culture which doesn’t want to accept death as a fitting end to life. They are so incorrigibly energetic that the white light of their expectations bleaches even their pessimism. In that respect, they could all take a tip from, say, Joan Didion, who at least has never imagined that the Grim Reaper gets into the tournament only on a wild card.

But this isn’t even a quibble. It’s just an observation from someone standing awed and stunned on the sidelines. In my own country, Australia, Portnoy’s Complaint, first published in 1969, was a banned book for the first five years of its career. Having exiled myself to London, I was able to read it, but even in London there was no mistaking that the Americans were leaving the old British Empire looking not just superseded but mealy-mouthed.

American English had become the dominant language of modern reality. There was still a lot to be said for a version of English that wasn’t dominant ( the British and ex-colonial writers would go on to prove that post-imperial confusion was at least as fruitful as the imperial success had ever been) but you couldn’t mistake the shift of cultural power. Even today, decades later, a British professor of American Studies at a provincial university is in the position of someone with the free run of the PX at the local US Air Force base: he has access to goods whose quality is hard to match locally. As for the home-grown literati, listen to Martin Amis talking about Bellow, and Ian McEwan talking about Updike. Try to imagine the same mentor-prentice relationship in reverse. It might happen one day, but not quite yet. For my own part, I can only say this much: of the two funniest books I have ever read in my life, Lucky Jim made me laugh loudest, but Portnoy’s Complaint set me free.

But in culture as in military strength, preponderance has its drawbacks. The big guns get a sense of mission, and their very confidence invites questions about their vision, even about their ability to gaze within. Just as Bellow, in his factual writings, never asked himself the awkward question about divisions within Israel, so in his fictional writings he stifled a question that would have multiplied his range: he never made a subject out of his succession of discarded wives, when you would have thought — must have thought — that for a writer otherwise so brilliantly introspective, there lay the essence of his subject. Similarly, Mailer, unceasingly writing advertisements for himself, never delved far enough into his own psyche to make a subject out of his complicity in the death of Jack Abbott’s victim: the great writer could face every embarrassment except the one that pierced to the centre of his responsibility as a public writer.

Vidal has never admitted, let alone explored, the question of whether his criticisms of the American power elite might not be compromised by his membership of it. Does he really think, when he argues that FDR tricked Japan into World War II, that the Japanese right wing, currently making a come-back, will not take this as an endorsement of its views? And does Updike think we will never ask how his basket-balling Rabbit can have the sensibility of Proust, or whether Bech, the character he created to embody his fame as a writer, was not calculated to increase it?

Finally it is only Roth who takes himself entirely to pieces. Has he been cruel to leave recognizable the outlines of discarded loved ones? Yes. Has he made a subject of that? Yes again. That’s why his father keeps on coming back. Even less inclined to be shaken off than the awful Kliman, the fathers of Roth’s leading men walk the platform by dead of night. But does even Roth complete the peeling of the artichoke? To look for the answer, we must go back again to the beginning of this new novel, and try, this time, to finish up somewhere beyond the start. For Zuckerman, if not for Roth, potency is gone. Has desire gone with it? You bet your life it hasn’t. Listen to this:

And so I set out to minimize the loss by struggling to pretend that desire had naturally abated, and I came in contact for barely an hour with a beautiful, privileged, intelligent, self-possessed, languid-looking thirty year-old made enticingly vulnerable by her fears and I experienced the bitter helplessness of a taunted old man dying to be whole again.

But she’s been there since Goodbye Columbus, and as long as he can imagine her, he is whole again. The wholeness is in the style, which even now, as he (wait a second: as Zuckerman) prays for the collagen injection to take effect on his slack urethra, proceeds with the delicious complexity of dream baseball. “I write a sentence and then I turn it around,” Lonoff once said in The Ghost Writer. “Then I look at it and turn it around again. Then I have lunch.” Roth can still do that. It’s still all there. Only the big jokes are gone. He doesn’t laugh that way much any more. The style that sprang from sexual energy has moved up too far into the head to permit any more gut-busting inventions like Thereal McCoy. She’s still lurking in the bathroom in Portnoy’s Complaint, waiting to blow the minds of the next generation of horny male adolescents: but the man who thought of her has moved on. A long way from the entrance now, he is near the exit: or he says he is.

When the Ghost exits, he leaves us asking whether he is real. But he is real as long as Hamlet thinks so. Lonoff was the ghost of Zuckerman’s father the way that Portnoy’s father was the ghost of Roth’s father, who, we may deduce, was pained by the way his brilliant son won fame. But we deduce it from one of his novels. In Zuckerman Unbound, Zuckerman emerged as the author of Carnovsky, a book as scandalous to the older generation of Jews as Portnoy’s Complaint. Zuckerman went on to became further established as a writer with a career path very much like Roth’s, except of course, it isn’t. Or what if “isn’t” isn’t the word? Only the stage directions confirm that the speaker was ever there.

Exit Ghost. Great title. The book of a great writer. A great book? Maybe it’s just another piece of a puzzle. A great puzzle, and true to life in being so. In these strange and wonderful books that he writes under or about another name than his, Roth has been mapping the geography in an area of life where only his literary heroes — Kafka, of course, is one of them — have ever gone. The labyrinth of consciousness is actually constructed from the only means by which we can find a way out of it. It’s a web that Ariadne spins from her own thread. You don’t get to figure it out. You only get to watch it being spun. And if you are Nathan Dedalus (it was Zuckerman’s name for himself in the running heads to the second chapter of The Ghost Writer) you are in love with her for life, even if it kills you.

(New York Times, October 7, 2007)


Some of my fellow critics thought I had been far too soft on Exit Ghost. But I wasn’t just making up for having had to be so hard on The Plot Against America, which I reviewed for the Atlantic Monthly. (The review is collected in my book The Meaning of Recognition, and I hope it shows that I found Roth’s book weak only in the context of a strength that I had always revered.) I really do think that Roth’s later follow-up novels, the ones that pick up on themes he treated earlier, are valuable even when the action seems thin. They give us his later views on earlier conclusions, and show that they were never concluded. They project the author into time. When the day comes that he is projected into time all the way, even his merest afterthoughts will be seen to enrich a picture which he, after all, was solely responsible for having brought into being. And if Roth’s voice seemed less vigorous as time ran out, well, wasn’t that part of the story too? As with Kingsley Amis and Lucky Jim, Philip Roth, the inventor of Portnoy’s Complaint, was fated to spend his career on a long march through his own shadow, because that single, early, violently funny book had changed the sensibility of the generation who would read everything he subsequently wrote, and they could never go back to a state in which he seemed so new. But the penalty for knowing only the formative book (what Martin Amis calls ‘the talent novel’) is to miss the full spiritual development of the author, and, as Martin Amis said again, we don’t read books, we read authors.