- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

EXIT GHOST

By Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin, $26, 292 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

So Nathan Zuckerman is back. Philip Roth has once more brought that particular alter ego to us, apparently for the final time. But the title “Exit Ghost,” with its reference to “Hamlet,” is a little misleading, for Zuckerman in this novel is no ghost but a fully flesh-and-blood character as full of salt and vinegar as ever, battered by physical and emotional demons but definitely not extinguished by them. He is identifiably the Philip Roth we have come to know in recent years, withdrawn from public life but still famous and, crucially, turning out novel after novel, one more splendid than the other:

“I don’t go to dinner parties. I don’t go to movies, I don’t watch television. I don’t own a cell phone or a VCR or a DVD player or a computer. I continue to live in the Age of the Typewriter and have no idea what the World Wide Web is. I no longer bother to vote. I write for most of the day and often into the night. I read, mainly the books that I first discovered as a student, the masterpieces of fiction whose power over me is no less, and in some cases greater, than it was in my initial exciting encounters with them… . I don’t give readings or lectures or teach at a college or appear on TV. When my books are published, I keep to myself. I write every day of the week — otherwise I am silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all — isn’t the work all I need, the work and the working? What does it matter any longer if I’m incontinent and impotent.”

What a compelling voice: Dry, matter of fact, courageous, centered. And above all, honest. We see how the great novels of the past dozen years came to be created, a byproduct of a withdrawal from the world forced on him by the devastation of prostate cancer and the radical surgery that cured him of it. But at what a cost. For all the brave acceptance and lack of self-pity that make the discussion of all this bearable to the reader, “Exit Ghost” shows that yes, it does matter to Zuckerman — and thus to Mr. Roth — that he is incontinent and impotent.

The reader of this searing novel is spared few details about the twin demons of incontinence and impotence that bedevil Zuckerman. Mr. Roth once told Harold Bloom that he believed we are put on earth to be humiliated and he does not minimize that aspect of his incapacity. Not only is he acutely aware of the odor that lingers on him if he is not assiduous in changing the pads or of the yellow stain that follows him when he swims in his local pond, but so are others, and they do not hesitate to use it against him.

In one of his many altercations with Kliman, the bumptious young biographer who wants to degrade the memory of an obscure-but-revered writer, E.I. Lonoff (familiar to readers of past Zuckerman novels like “The Ghost Writer”), by revealing his incest with a sister, the words “you smell bad” are mercilessly flung at him.

But again, I cannot emphasize too strongly the staunchness of Mr. Roth’s attitude in discussing these matters. He does not flinch from their awful reality; he does not minimize them, but he accepts them. They do indeed matter, but the trip back to New York in “Exit Ghost” represents an attempt to see if they must, after all, define him.

His return to the city, which he had fled a decade earlier in the face of death threats from a source that was never discovered, is to investigate — and as it turns out, undergo — a new procedure that holds out hope of ameliorating his twin disabilities. He returns to a city where, post-September 11, in a sense everyone feels under the kind of threat that forced him to flee, and his observations of its changed nature are acute.

Sometimes they are relatively trivial, as in his wonder at the sight of seemingly everyone jabbering into cell phones as they walk, but at times they penetrate to the fear that gnaws at some New Yorkers beneath the surface of their everyday existence.

But the chief effect of the city on Zuckerman is to stimulate in him engagement with life, the very thing he has avoided all those years in his New England exile writing those marvelous books. Like the aged Yeats, desire torments and excites him, reminding him that, despite his physical incapacities, he is still alive and, perhaps more importantly to him, serving as a spur to his imagination as a writer.

For just as “Hamlet” famously has a play within a play, so “Exit Ghost” has a play within the novel. Almost literally, for the imagined scenes between Zuckerman and a beautiful, rich, promising, accomplished young writer whom he actually meets are rendered in dialogue form. This sets them off from the rest of the novel, with its horrors and devastations not only for Zuckerman but for others as well, and allows Mr. Roth free reign to give literary vent to the libido, which while certainly frustrated, apparently rages away nonetheless.

For in the end, if I may use yet another “Hamlet” reference, “the play’s the thing.” What is most impressive about “Exit Ghost” is the immense dedication of its author to the art of writing. Beyond all the pain, the devastation, the humiliation, the frustration, there is always for Zuckerman and for Mr. Roth the paramount act of literary creation:

“But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.”

It is the reader’s good fortune that Mr. Roth is indeed among those “very, very few,” for while never sparing them or himself the true nature of physical devastation, he always has his writer’s eye on the prize of true literary accomplishment. If “Exit Ghost” is not Mr. Roth’s greatest novel, its strengths are obviously very hard won by him, and for this reason alone it will occupy a very special place in his personal literary canon.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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