Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, Viking Canada.
Every new book by Philip Roth becomes a publishing event – eagerly awaited and fiercely discussed. Approaching 75, he is the recipient of a bevy of literary awards and the only living American writer whose complete works (28 volumes) are being published by the Library of America.
Exit Ghost (the title is a stage direction in Macbeth) is Roth’s ninth novel featuring his putative alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who first appeared in The Ghost Writer (1979). Although the protean Zuckerman is close to Roth in biographical detail, their lives and actions are hardly congruent.
Exit Ghost is neither as ambitious nor as successful as that trio of earlier Zuckerman novels: American Pastoral; I Married a Communist; and The Human Stain. Also, it lacks the compassion and emotional intensity of Patrimony (1991), the compelling story of the life and death of the author’s father.
Zuckerman, now 71, is the sad victim of prostrate cancer that has rendered him both impotent and incontinent. For 11 years he has lived reclusively atop a New England mountain. His energy and vitality are things of the past.
Roth cruelly writes that “the once rigid instrument of procreation was now like the end of a pipe you see sticking out of a field somewhere, a meaningless piece of pipe that spurts and gushes intermittently, spitting forth water to no end, until a day arrives when somebody remembers to give the valve an extra turn that shuts the damn sluice down.”
Forsaking his rural retreat for a visit to Manhattan to consult his urologist, Zuckerman is bewildered by the ubiquity of the cellphone. “Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. When I took a taxi, the cabbie was on the phone. For one who frequently went without talking to anyone for days at a time, I had to wonder what that had previously held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one’s surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the street through one’s animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire. For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous.”
In the big city, Zuckerman has three unexpected encounters that lend tension and interest to his return, however briefly, to modern society.
The first of these is a figure out of his past, Amy Bellett, once the lover and inspiration of the famous writer I.E. Lonoff, Zuckerman’s friend and mentor. She is now poor and sickly, and her beauty and wit have faded ravaged by time and circumstance. She possesses an unfinished manuscript by Lonoff that may contain a scandalous secret.
The second of Zuckerman’s encounters is with 28-year-old Richard Kliman, a relentless and predatory writer who is eager to glean information from Amy and Zuckerman about the life of Lonoff whose biography he is writing. Both of them, dismayed by Kliman’s insensitivity, turn aside his frantic importunities despite his anger and frustration.
In the end, Kliman’s “exasperation reached its crescendo, but rather than hurling the manuscript at my head – as I fully expected, instinctively raising my arms to protect my face – he dropped it onto the pavement, onto the New York sidewalk, only inches in front of my feet, and fled into traffic, darting between the streaming cars that I could only hope to see shatter the rampaging would-be biographer to bits.”
The third and most significant of the encounters is with a “beautiful, privileged, intelligent, self-possessed, languid-looking 30-year-old.” She is happily married, and Zuckerman’s infatuation with her is a meaningless fantasy beyond realization.
Interspersed throughout the novel is an imaginary dialogue, a playlet with the characters He and She. The words are written by Zuckerman on his hotel stationery, the erotic ramblings of an old man for the unobtainable.
Rich with provocative ideas and Roth’s distinctive literary style, Exit Ghost is a sympathetic farewell to Zuckerman. He had been around a long time, the subject of nine of Roth’s novels. It was time for him to go.