Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

"Nothing is certain any longer except that this will likely be my last attempt to persist in groping for words to combine into the sentences and paragraphs of a book. Because permanent groping is what it is now, a groping that goes well beyond the ancient groping for fluency that writing is to begin with."

By Edward Copeland
Rumors of Nathan Zuckerman's demise have been greatly exaggerated, despite Philip Roth's insistence that Exit Ghost is the final go-around for his literary alter ego. If Roth has indeed closed the book on Zuckerman, Exit Ghost is a fine conclusion, even if it fails to reach the heights of Roth's recent spate of great books.

In his most recent appearances, Zuckerman has been an observer more than a participant, as he shared the stories of the people in Roth's great trilogy of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain.

While Zuckerman's still watching in Exit Ghost, he's also clearly the protagonist for the first time in a long time, in a story that takes him back to his very first tale The Ghost Writer.

Set in 2004, Exit Ghost picks up Zuckerman as he's returning from a self-imposed exile following death threats and 11 years of impotence and incontinence following prostate cancer.

"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," Zuckerman writes. "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."

The promise of a medical procedure that could ease his bladder problems drags him out of his Berkshire hideout and back to New York for the first time in a long time, a New York that while familiar seems alien at the same time. Particularly troubling to the writer, now past his 70th birthday, is the sudden explosion of cell phones everywhere. As he notes, used to be that you only heard crazy people talking to themselves on the streets of Manhattan, now practically everyone does. Zuckerman:
"found myself entertaining the idea for a story in which Manhattan has turned into a sinister collectivity where everyone is spying on everyone else, everyone being tracked by the person at the other end of his or her phone, even though, incessantly dialing one another from wherever they like in the great out of doors, the telephoners believe themselves to be experiencing the maximum freedom."

While he's in New York, he also stumbles into the past in the form of an eager would-be literary biographer who wants to reawaken interest in Zuckerman's long-dead mentor E.I. Lonoff at the same time he reveals what he thinks is a long-hidden secret to the late writer's work.

While Lonoff is dead, his lover from The Ghost Writer, Amy, the young woman Zuckerman once fantasized was really Anne Frank, still hangs on, albeit barely, fighting both brain cancer and the overzealous biographer. She enlists Zuckerman in her effort to keep Lonoff's supposed secret buried with him and to stop the writer from redeeming Lonoff's literary reputation by ruining Lonoff the man.

Exit Ghost tackles the preoccupation with mortality that has popped up frequently recently in Roth's work as well as the art of writing itself. It also evokes Zuckerman's own look at his own life, if not in specific, then in going back and re-reading the classic writers of his youth and remembering friends such as George Plimpton, now gone, and colleagues, such as Norman Mailer, literally on his last legs.

Zuckerman's opposition to the Lonoff biographer goes beyond the spilling of private secrets and asking why one's work needs explaining in the first place, especially by a young man seeking to make his name on the back of someone else's. "Old men hate young men? Young men fill them with envy and hatred? Why shouldn't they?" Zuckerman asks.

Exit Ghost is a very quick, satisfying read, even with a somewhat abrupt ending that leaves most of the issues it has raised hanging. Still, if this truly is Zuckerman's last stand, it's not a bad one.

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Great post, Edward. I'm ashamed to say I've never read Roth-- read a lot about him, and know about his wide influence, but have never dived into any of the novels. But the publication o this, as well as the reissuing of the complete Library of America (think that's the publisher) edition of the earlier Zuckerman tales, makes me want to get started.
There are so many great Roth books, I'm not sure where to tell you to start. I think my favorite of his is actually a non-Zuckerman tale: Sabbath's Theater.
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