Thursday, January 3, 2008

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

How Did Santa Know?
How did Santa know? Because I made a list, of course, and made a point of putting Roth's latest Zuckerman novel on it. It was hard to put down, if ultimately a bit of a let-down. But, hey -- what can you say about an aging writer (Zuckerman, that is) who is impotent and incontinent? In the end, it's not exactly going to be a spirit-riser.

A sequel of sorts to The Ghost Writer, the first of Roth's novels about his fictional and literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. The two novels bookend the Zuckerman series -- the first about the young Zuckerman, a sprinter in the literary race, and the last about the 71-year-old Zuckerman (the age Roth was in 2004, the year the events in the book take place), nearing the end of the long marathon, a prostate cancer survivor who has distanced himself from the world but is swept by a last wave of (imagined) passion for a much younger woman. All while being revisited, almost 50 years later, by his youthful encounter with the novelist E. I Lonoff, his wife Hope, and Lonoff's young lover Amy Bellette, portrayed in The Ghost Writer. There's also a subplot about Lonoff's biographer that allows Roth to vent about the exploitive and reductionist aspects of the genre as it's currently practiced. In the end, Zuckerman once again retreats from the world, but not before life, fiction and fantasy have become hopelessly muddled, demonstrating that writers like Zuckerman never really stop writing, if only for themselves.

Often humorous, sometimes poignant, frequently depressing and written in Roth's characteristically supple, effortlessly fluid style -- it has a lot of the Roth elements, even though the plotting is slapdash and almost incidental, and the book succeeds more as an essay on the loss of creative powers than as a novel. Roth is one of the greats, and he just keeps on keeping on -- one of my favorite writers. Appropriately, the jacket design is by another cool older dude who just keeps on keeping on -- 78-year-old Milton Glaser.

1 comment:

Wayne said...

Great review. I'm a huge Roth fan. Still have to get to that one, though.