Philip Roth: Nemesis

Roth, Philip (2010), Nemesis, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978-0-224-08953-1

The World Health Organization defines poliomyelitis, also known as polio, this way:

[It] is a highly infectious viral disease, which mainly affects young children. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water, and multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system. Many infected people have no symptoms, but do excrete the virus in their faeces, hence transmitting infection to others. Initial symptoms of polio include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and pain in the limbs. In a small proportion of cases, the disease causes paralysis, which is often permanent. Polio can only be prevented by immunization.

Before being virtually eradicated in most first world countries, it wreaked havoc in all of them. To this day roughly 40.000 polio survivors still live in Germany alone. The United States have known several outbreaks of polio before in 1962 a polio vaccine was licensed and distributed. Between 1916 and the late 1950s, polio broke out practically each summer, in various areas of the country, but with varying degrees of aggressiveness. One of the most devastating outbreaks (and easily the most aggressive outbreak since 1916) was the polio epidemic of 1944, which lasted for 5 months and affected just over 17.000 cases. The powerfully frightening effect of the sickness was exacerbated by the fact that people didn’t know yet how to cure the disease or even how it was transmitted. Until the research of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and their colleagues bore fruit in the 1950s, polio continuously killed, maimed or at least frightened children and teenagers, as well as their overwhelmed parents. Philip Roth, born in 1933, who was 11 years old at the time of the epidemic, chose to set his most recent book in just that period of time; and as is the case in most of his other recent output, the contact with personal or national history, as well as the impact of memories and the pathos of remembrance invigorates a work that has become tired and dull of late. It’s a joy to see a master craftsman (as Roth proves himself to be even in ridiculous novels such as Everyman) infuse his writing with more than routine.

And as a result of all this, Nemesis, Philip Roth’s 31st book, is easily his best novel in ten years. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t rise to the same heights as his very best work, but it unites both Roth’s impeccable prose craftsmanship and a compelling story and characters. In the past ten years, after publishing The Human Stain, Philip Roth waited to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In order to achieve this, he published a short novel once a year for the last five years. All of them could be read as career summoning achievements. Exit Ghost wrapped up the Zuckerman stories, and both Indignation and The Humbling (my review) were epics of getting old, stories that featured the typical Roth protagonist (a mix between Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh) as he battled age and decrepitude. Bursting at the seams with a lifetime of learning and misogyny, these are each succinct summaries of Roth’s work. On the other hand, this is unfair, since his work is so much better, fresher and more powerful. In fact, some of these books, especially the miserable Everyman, read like parodies of Roth, or at least like lifeless imitations. Roth doesn’t seem to be able to reach for something new: instead he re-works his old books, and in a way his recent novels present a cruel reading of the Roth oeuvre. None of these books are worth recommending to anyone but die-hard Roth devotees. Nemesis is different. While it does rely a lot on characters and types already developed by its author in previous novels, the result (and the drama) is new, and very, very good. The two Roth novels it is probably closest to are American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, but these are resemblances that are not overt or troubling in any way. Instead, Nemesis seems to be what Roth’s previous 5-6 novels tried but failed to become: a synthesis, a summary of a strand of his work that is more than imitation or creative cut & paste.

Nemesis‘ protagonist is 23 year old Bucky Cantor, a beautiful, strong, virile man, accomplished at sports and dutiful to a fault. Bucky’s grandfather had raised him to “stand up for himself as a man and to stand up for himself as a Jew”, to have pride in what he was and to have both sturdy convictions, as well as the courage to stand by them. Bucky, in many ways, is the ideal soldier and he did attempt to join the army when WWII broke out but due to his poor eyesight he was exempted from military service. Now, in the summer of 1944, while his best friends fight Nazis in France, he is a playground director in Weequahic, Newark, New Jersey. His girlfriend, from a good Jewish family, works at a summer resort and wants him to come as well, but he is loath to abandon his duties at the playground. This reticence only deepens when suddenly kids from his playground start to come down with polio, ending up in iron lungs or dead. Bucky is at a loss how to deal with this. He talks to parents, is attentive as far as hygienic matters are concerned, he tries to look out for the kids, but polio, when it arrives in Weequahic, comes out of nowhere, an invisible enemy, impossible to fight. Early in the book, before Weequahic kids are infected, there is an opportunity to face off against a visible, tangible enemy. “[T]wo cars full of Italians” pull up and Italian boys saunter up to Bucky’s playground, declaring: “we’re spreadin’ polio”. These Italians are from a Newark slum “that had reported the most cases of polio in the city so far”, and Bucky is determined not to let them spread the sickness in his neighborhood, as well. With this confrontation, the book presents its readers with the social and political parameters the rest of the novel will then continue to use. There are the working class boys, determined not to “leave you people out”, i.e. driven by resentment against a better off, healthier part of the city. On the other hand, there are the very uptight, religious, conservative, middle-class citizens of Weequahic, who couldn’t have chosen a better champion for their cause than Bucky.

This opposition is only one side of the coin, however. With the expression “you people”, the Italian ruffians don’t of course merely mean “you rich people”. There is no doubt that “you people” is also simply short for “you Jews”. With this episode placed near the beginning of the novel, we’re soon made to be aware of two levels of signification here. There is the story of Bucky Cantor and his attempt to save the kids of his neighborhood from dying of polio. And there is a clever substructure that plays with notions connected to antisemitism and medieval jew-hate and possibly even Zionism. This is not a full-fledged allegory, rather, Roth has put a few elements into play. There is polio which is clearly a stand-in for the plague. In the Middle Ages, Jews were often scapegoats for outbreaks of the plague. They were said to poison the wells, kill Christian children, etc. In Nemesis, Roth makes two kinds of use of this vile accusation: there are the Italians, who spit on the sidewalk to bring the plague to the Jews, which reverses the situation. And then there is the reaction of the citizens of Newark once polio takes over Weequahic, turning it into the most affected neighborhood: “Some of them sound as if they think the best way to get rid of the polio epidemic would be to burn down Weequahic with all the Jews in it.” Thus, things fall apart in Nemesis. Just as the superior standing of Weequahic residents takes a dive in the course of the book, so does Bucky’s personal life. After confronting the Italians and heading them off, he is left without a clear course of action, so what he does, in a way, is to offer ministration. He visits sick children in the hospital, attends funerals, and is generally the first person to call afflicted families in order to see whether he can help. He tries to ease tensions between various groups of Weequahic residents, and gets the kids out of the glaring sun whenever possible. Small things like that.

It is no accident that Philip Roth named his protagonist “Cantor”, because Bucky fills, in a non-religious, non-musical way, the role that a cantor would play in the spiritual life of a synagogue. There’s also a certain irony in that naming: as the book progresses, and more and more children fall sick or die, Bucky loses his faith in God. Or rather, he still believes God exists, but assumes that God is evil, that, for any of the faithful, it is just a matter of time before “He sticks His shiv in their back.” The primary reason for Bucky’s bitterness is not just the dying kids. It is the insidious way that God seems to kill these children, and the cruel way that He seems to make Bucky the instrument of His murderous game. And while the people of his generation die in the war against Germany (or Japan), the younger generation is struck by invisible bullets, shot from an invisible gun. As we read on and on, Bucky’s story becomes a tragic one. The disastrous developments in the city around him are increasingly mirrored by disastrous developments within himself. There’s his loss of faith, but more importantly, there is his fear of being responsible for everything. When things come to a head in Weequahic, he finally heeds the advice of his girlfriend, and takes up a job at a summer resort far, far away from the polio-ridden streets of Newark. Only it doesn’t take very long until the first boy at that resort, this innocent-seeming paradise (that could, to take up an earlier argument, be seen as a stand-in for Israel, Jews fleeing from Antisemitism, who can’t, ultimately, flee from it because it always catches up with them), until a boy that was under Bucky’s supervision falls ill and is diagnosed with polio. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Henceforth, Bucky is plagued by the question “Who brought polio here if not me?” We can anticipate that this will happen, because Roth has led us there, with a light and clear narrative.

We are made to see that what happens to Bucky Cantor is, as is the case in all the classic tragedies, necessary, destined, inescapable, because of Bucky’s harmatia. His weakness is his inability to reconcile his poor eyesight with his impeccable body, his amazingly disciplined mind. His eyesight is beyond his control, he can’t will his eyes to see clearer, and so for him, there is a line that connects his body (the body that fails him) first to polio which he doesn’t understand and can’t fight, and then to God, who he can’t fight and at whose mercy he finds himself to be. The inability to deal with bodily imperfection poisons his mind so deeply and thoroughly that everything else that happens follows. It is impossible to describe how different Bucky is from Roth’s usual characters. Roth’s characters, even when they are weak, acknowledge that weakness with a swagger. There is a constant sense of superiority in them. A character who is as desperately earnest as Bucky Cantor is rare in Roth’s work. He does, however, contain characteristic traits from several characters in Roth’s oeuvre. More to the point, he appears to be a mélange of the Swede from American Pastoral and the typical Roth/Zuckermann/Kepesh persona, with added insecurities and earnestness. This focus on character flaws as leading to a tragic destiny is supported by a web of Greek allusions and influences. There is not just the eponymous Nemesis, the Greek spirit of divine retribution. Roth also constructed Bucky Cantor to correspond in several respects to Achilles, and, as with the other subtext, various elements of the story can be seen to have an equivalent in events as re-told by the Illiad or other Greek texts of the period. Apollo’s invisible arrows bringing the plague, Achilles’ unique handsomeness, and his proverbial heel, it all fits the mold.

While none of these two allusions to Antisemitism and to Greek myth, are exact, and used in a thorough manner, they are nevertheless relevant here, and more than just imaginary, because Nemesis puts a strong emphasis (as many of Roth’s novels do) on the process of storytelling, and the reliability of memory and individual stories. Nemesis is not told by Bucky, nor by an omniscient narrator. It is told by someone who was a boy when all this happened. The narrator, for almost the complete novel, is invisible. He refers to himself only once when naming three infected boys, including himself among them. At the end of the book, however, he breaks off the narrative, and returns us to a more contemporary setting. He tells us how he encountered Bucky many years later, and how Bucky then told him his story, which he, in turn, relates to us. In a way, we, Bucky and the narrator are part of a sophisticated game of Chinese whispers, and the mythical and historical parallels and allusions remind us of the fact that Bucky’s story is told to us in a highly complex, clever and accomplished way. How many real people actually resemble Achilles? Really, Nemesis is about the loss of childhood illusions, the loss of unfettered belief in the invincibility of admired authority figures, the loss of security as we enter a life of uncertainties, a world of violence, death and warring faiths. Although the story is literarily heightened, the book still presents a stark look at history, and unlike his previous exercises in considering history, Roth really comes though, this time. There is no sugarcoating at the end, no comforting adage or twist. Nemesis is bleak, moving, and marvelously written. Yes, it is too careful, too timid, too conventional to be great, but it is a very good novel about growing up in the modern world, and the interconnection of American history with Antisemitism, myth and archetype.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.

Don DeLillo: Point Omega

DeLillo, Don (2010), Point Omega, Scribner
ISBN 978-1-4391-6995-7

DSC_0626I’m not a slow reader, not usually, especially not with regard to fiction, but it took me ages to finish Don DeLillo’s slim new novel Point Omega. It is a short, intense burst of literary fireworks by a living master, a writer, indeed, that some consider to be one of the best (if not the best) prose writer of his generation. Like many other writers of his generation, that praise has not been universally strong, like Pynchon, Barth or Roth, he has always had his detractors (most famously, perhaps, James Wood and the insufferable B.R. Meyers), and in the past decade, they seemed to gain the upper hand in the critical discourse. With no major (and canonical) novels like The Names, White Noise and Libra forthcoming, his output seemed to concentrate on plays and thin novels, with the exception of Underworld, his longest novel so far, and the one that could be said to contain the broadest and most sustained statement of his artistic vision. Mao II (despite winning the PEN/Faulkner award) and The Body Artist both failed to garner the attention, praise and respect that his earlier books won, and his 2003 novel Cosmopolis arguably represents the nadir of his oeuvre. There is a blandness to some of his late work, an indulgence of means and thought that ill befits a writer of DeLillo’s power and that does not really fit in with his ability to draw the utmost tension from a setting or situation. All that is different in Point Omega. There is not much plot, or memorable characters in the book, but then, that’s not the game it engages in.

DSC_0627Point Omega is one of the most concentrated, dense, focused novels I have read in a while. I think one of his problems in his late work, even in books that I enjoyed greatly, like Mao II, is a lack of will to decide upon a mode to write the book in, and nothing in the books mediates, controls or explains this lack. Mao II, for example, is, on the one hand, an explication of crowds and the cultural ties of various ideas about and views of crowds to the American culture and its self-image. As usual, DeLillo’s novel toys with idea, with slogans mentioned only to contradict them on the plot level. On the other hand, it’s an almost classical, traditional ars moriendi. There is no tension between these two elements, no gain that enriches the novel, these two parts just sit uneasily next to each other, sometimes connecting, more often not. I mention this specific novel and its problem, because in Point Omega, DeLillo sets up a similar situation, but this time his craft, his marvelous abilities as a novelist, prevail and mold the two elements into one coherent whole. Sadly for many of his readers, he sacrifices a readable plot, and believable characters in the process. But, the book still works, because DeLillo’s decision to focus on a wholly cerebral structure and narrative, to craft a book that is about speaking, seeing, writing, reading, a book that is, unlike much of his earlier work, about uncertainty, a book that questions authorial control and power, pays off big time in this book which I read carefully but breathlessly, slowly, but compelled to read on by the sheer avalanche of thought.

DSC_0628That thought, it should be added, isn’t DeLillo’s. One of his major strengths in this book is to write micro-pastiches, small set pieces, and set up a maze of reflective and repetitive devices, content to let the reader find his way through this. The static quality of this and other good recent DeLillo books often derives from the fact that DeLillo sets up situations rather than developing them in detail. His work, and especially Point Omega, frequently reads like a carefully constructed stage design, one that leaves the actors little wriggle room, but still one that depends upon the audience to animate it. His earlier work has practiced some healthy skepticism with regard to the long diatribes of the self-important narrators and protagonists populating its pages, but that skepticism was never as strong as in this book, which undercuts all attempts to establish any kind of authority. Unceasingly, the reader is confronted with readings and statements that sound definitive and certain, while becoming more and more certain that what he’s chasing after, what DeLillo denies him, is like the Kantian noumenon, independent from his perception but unknowable. This is not about the conditio humana, it’s not a broad and sweeping statement about human perception. It would be an incredibly dull and useless book if it were. No, what DeLillo does is examine his own art by putting it through the grinder of doubt. Point Omega is utterly self-contained; although it does offer references to culture, politics and science, it uses these as texts, as tools to make sense of itself.

DSC_0631Many of these tools appear in the monologues and brief remarks made both by the narrator, a filmmaker called Jim Finley, and by Richard Elster, an aging intellectual that Finley desperately wants to conduct an interview with. Or rather: whom he wants to be the subject of a documentary that is supposed to feature only Elster in front of a wall. In the most recent of a series of attempts to convince Elster, Finley visits him in his home in the desert (doubtless a fitting setting for a man who helped provide the intellectual framework for the Iraq war). Jesse, Elster’s visiting daughter, completes the set-up. As tensions between the odd trio develop, fissures start to show in the facade of their acts, as behaviors and speech seem to adapt to shifting dynamics. Finally, as the daughter vanishes without a trace, the situation breaks down, establishing a new hierarchy and new priorities for all concerned. What may sound exciting when summed up in a few sentences, isn’t actually exciting in the novel, or, not exciting for the reasons that one would expect. DeLillo takes care not to create a narrative that thrives on speed, on a simplistically coherent narrative thrust. Instead, he selects bits and pieces, small narrative chokepoints which are not structured by the characters and their emotional concerns, but rather through speeches and observations made by one of the three participants in that curious desert session. More often than not, these speeches focus on abstract issues, such as Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the “Omega Point”, on political, and philosophical considerations. The exigencies of film-making come up, as well as personal relationships in general.

DSC_0625In fact, it’s Point Omega’s treatment of the latter topic that best exemplifies not just it’s concerns but more to the point: what it’s not concerned with. In these discussions of marriage, we are offered two bland, cardboard cutout characters who talk about their marriage with less passion than an accountant will discuss his occupation with. Two things are especially remarkable about these passages, both to do with literary references. One is the fact that DeLillo borrows, possibly for the first time in his career, the maudlin tone of Philip Roth’s most self-absorbed and most self-pitying works (The Humbling, for example). It utterly, however, lacks the emotion, the sentimentality that Roth lathers his narratives up with. This is because these are pastiches, recognizable as such by the distance they keep to the reader and to other other sections of the book they are in. As the book draws to a close, these elements become stronger and stronger, but DeLillo keeps delaying the payoff, the gratification that we expect of some of these elements. In what is a very old-fashioned move, he presents us with possibilities, only to never work through their details. Whereas much of his other recent work allowed his old men to be as whiny as they wanted to be, DeLillo’s method here checks what, from the evidence of this other novels published in the past decade, is clearly an artistic instinct of his. This is one of several elements that he offers up for inspection and criticism. That he does it by borrowing the tone of a writer like Roth is not a sign of cowardliness. I think it’s a combination of wanting to exaggerate the tendency in his own work by comparing it with Roth’s vastly more indulgent use of the same device, and of trying to step away from the plate, of trying to set a stage but let the reader hit the ball. The various reviews that made different use of this element of the book are an indication of sorts of the success of that method.

DSC_0630The other thing that is remarkable about this passage (but also about the rest of the book) is how it clearly demonstrates an alienation, of the sort that has been amply expounded upon by fiction writers of all stripes. Two books seem particularly pertinent here. One is Albert Camus’ La Chute, with its protagonist Clamence whose disillusion, whose ‘fall’ provides a blueprint for how Richard Elster’s life develops, not in most of the details, but certainly in the sentiment and general direction. Some aspects are even rather close, as Clamence’s predilection for heights and loneliness which corresponds to Elster’s move to the desert. The other book, which seems more a spiritual forebear than an actual explicit reference, is Peter Handke’s odd little masterpiece Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (translated into English by Michael Roloff as The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). In this book, published in 1970, Peter Handke proposes an idea of alienation that far exceeds a feeling of simple estrangement from people and situations. His protagonist, Joseph Bloch, even finds himself unable at times to hold on to the conventions of language, the relationship between things, words, and himself, which is usually taken for granted. At a particularly chilling moment in the book, even Bloch’s language breaks down, dissolving into small pictorial icons. While such a breakdown isn’t experienced by the narrator, it’s suggested that Elster may suffer from something like that, and the very framework, the novel’s central metaphor, engages a disbelief in the viability of conventional solutions to perceptional coherence.

24hour spychoThat framework is film, more specifically, Douglas Gordon’s installation 24 Hour Psycho, “first screened in 1993” and “installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the summer of 2006”, as the author tells us at the back of the book. And it is in late summer 2006 that the frame narrative of Point Omega is set, in the darkened room where the project is installed. 24 Hour Psycho is a projection of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but slowed down to about 2 frames a second, so that a screening of the whole movie takes up exactly 24 hours. Finch spends days in that room, watching the long version several times, and through his encounter with it, we are offered film as a metaphor for perception. The fact that our stories change when we see them enlarged, slower, faster, or from a different angle. Finch tries very hard to be smart and insightful and peppers his narrative with references to the installation, but his remarks are frequently ridiculous, and clearly serve as a reproduction of Elster’s speech. Elster, as a teacher, and someone who helped shape governmental policies, represents the discourse of power, but the novel weakens the link of that kind of discourse with the character of Elster, extending it to the narrator first, and, implicitly, to the authorial discourse itself. This deliberate weakening of the dominating discourse of the book is at times buttressed by a fuzziness in the writing, small ambiguities, inexact phrasings which destabilize a clear reading of these passages, without offering an alternative. While its true that its cerebral nature distances the reader, giving him everything at a remove, offering him emotions as objects, objects as language and language, in turn, as objects, it also distances the author. When a writer like Auster disavows his characters, it’s a sign of weakness, a difference which is compounded by books like this which are driven by an intense self-awareness that arises not in a disquisition about self-awareness, but in a steady and fine undercutting of the author’s own grasp of the novel’s discourse.

DSC_0629Any payoff that the book offers is in the exhilarating ride that it provides as literature, the plain joy of reading, of becoming, for minutes, hours, part of the book’s enterprise. It declines the opportunity to use characters and a story as an easy in for the reader, it does not reach out to him, it expects him to climb down into it on its own terms, read it, understand it within the limits that it offers. There’s no pretension of openness, of availability, and this is surely a quality that will put a lot of people off who like some comfort with their art, the coziness and warmth, not of ‘real’ human emotion, but of the conventional charade that is verisimilitude. DeLillo makes demands of his readers, and more than any other writer I read these past months, he isn’t open to or accepting of a broader, less interested readership. It wants you to care about its issues. If you don’t, this book won’t work for you. In its harsh look at convention, its rejection of simple solutions, it’s actually, while not open to other kinds of readers, open to other voices. Don DeLillo can seem like a writer who hogs the attention in his books, which can lead critics and readers to falsely equate the opinions of his protagonists with his own opinions. What’s true, however, is that DeLillo’s taut fictional nets do not allow for other voices, they are strict and restrictive in that regard. Point Omega, while possible DeLillo’s most taut book, disowns these narratives and suggests an opening up of new possibilities. We’re not there yet, neither we as readers, nor DeLillo as a writer, but Point Omega is a breaking point, a frontier post, as Stevens put it, “at the end of the mind, / beyond the last thought.” There is space, and as a writer, DeLillo lays no claims on it. He doesn’t even map it out, he only demonstrates the limits of his work, of his reach as writer and artist. That’s why Point Omega, his most claustrophobic, most densely constructed novel, also feels like a liberation, and his bravest book in decades.

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Philip Roth: The Humbling

Roth, Philip (2009), The Humbling, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224087933

The Humbling is Philip Roth’s 30th novel, an impressive number of works for any writer, but for a writer like Roth, who has been putting out masterpieces at a surprising rate, it’s even more impressive. Philip Roth, who, currently, is probably the preeminent American novelist, has written so many books and won so many prizes that for many, he has been the forerunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature (which is awarded this Thursday) for the past ten years, and each winner during that period has been greeted with whines of regret of the literary critics who have been rooting for Roth, a reaction that tended to be especially vitriolic whenever women won it. Roth himself is said to be campaigning heavily for the Nobel, and I would argue that his recent publications are part of these campaigns. It’s not just that, after Sabbath’s Theater, he’s predominantly written ‘important’ novels or career-summarizing ones, like Everyman (which reads at times like a pastiche of Roth) or Exit Ghost. It’s also the fact that he, who’s published four novels during the 1980s and five during the 1990s, has published a whopping seven during the ‘noughts’, the last four of which have been appearing at an annual rate, with a fifth (Nemesis) scheduled for 2010. It’s hard not to read this almost frantic productivity as a transparent attempt to prod the Swedish Academy to recognize him.

This frenzy is also accompanied with a slight decline in quality. Whereas the 6 novels published from 1995 (Sabbath’s Theater) to 2004 (The Plot against America) are arguably among the strongest ever published by Roth and constitute an astonishing run of masterpieces, the same cannot be said of his output since then. I realize that not everyone will agree with me on my low assessment of Everyman but both Exit Ghost as well as Indignation have at best met with a lukewarm critical reception. They are also all rather short, which I assume is due to the schedule Roth has enforced upon himself. At 140 pages, The Humbling is even shorter than the last three novels, but as far as quality is concerned, I would rate it slightly higher than those although it’s still well below that which Roth has shown himself capable of. It is an interesting book and certainly worth reading. Whatever weaknesses his late books may possess, Roth never lost the magic of his writing. As a stylist, Roth is still a master. The Humbling is written with a deft pen; Roth dazzles his readers with the elegance and the consummate control he exhibits over his creations. There isn’t one misplaced word or phrase. It’s impossible to read this book and not be profoundly impressed by Roth’s writing, if not, sadly, moved.

The writing’s main job is to make The Humbling‘s protagonist, Simon Axler, a failed actor, plausible and this it does well, so well indeed that, personally, I was gripped with a fundamental dislike for Axler who is a grandiose egomaniac, with strong misogynistic tendencies and a strong elitist bent. As the novel sets in, Axler recalls the end of his acting career. Throughout his professional life, he was an talented actor, slipping into his roles instinctively; acting was never, if we are to believe him, work, it was never difficult. But suddenly he lost his instinct for acting, his “magic”, he immediately stopped being a brilliant thespian and became mediocre, that’s how dependent he was upon his gifts. For a while he tried to work at being a better actor, to try to achieve through toil what no longer came to him naturally, but nothing worked. This disaster seem especially catastrophic to him because “[h]e’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful”. He falls apart completely which is where we meet him. His wife then leaves him and, afraid to commit suicide, Axler commits himself to a psychiatric hospital where he stays for all of twenty-six days. He then retires to his home in the country, rejecting all offers at re-starting his career as an actor. It is in this state that Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of old friends of his comes visiting and ends up being his lover.

She is 40 years old, 25 years younger than Axler and has “lived as a lesbian since she was twenty-three.” She was named after Pegeen Mike Flaherty, the protagonist of John Synge’s 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World. Any thorough analysis of the book would need to dwell on the multiple connections Roth’s novel shares with that play. This isn’t just true for this play, it’s a characteristic of The Humbling: almost obsessively, Roth has his protagonist recall plays and roles, thus creating a rich cultural context for this slim novel. Interestingly, just as Axler is a grandiose egomaniac, who needs everything to be about him, the book, too, doesn’t use these explicit references as a means to broaden its perspective. Instead, it is almost gluttonous in the way that it appropriates these references, using them as hermeneutic tools to deepen the reader’s perception and understanding of Axler and his relationship with Pegeen and himself. In the end, it is these references, or rather the most central one of them, Chekhov’s The Seagull, that brings the book to a close, that serves as a catalyst for Axler’s final breakthrough, his final, almost, epiphany. Structurally, the book’s ending is a return to the beginning. The Humbling has three sections, two of which could be said to be Axler sections and one which one might call the Pegeen sections.

Generally speaking, Axler has a hard time relinquishing narrative control. The whole book is written in a third person personal narrative, telling us Axler’s story, through his own point of view, basically. Other people’s voices and stories are only allowed representation as quotes in his own unending monologue. At times, the only difference between the narrative voice and direct speech of Axler’s appears to consist of a change of pronouns, from ‘he’ to ‘I’. In what I called ‘Axler’s sections’, the protagonist, as so many of Roth’s creations, spends much of his time bouncing questions and propositions back and forth in his skull, getting lost both in self-pity and short-lived hopes. The visit of his agent in the first section, come to offer him a part in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, especially highlights the self-pity. In this part of the book we are made aware of the stasis that Axler has slipped into, the lack of options available to him due to his depression and the resulting self-deprecating act he puts on. This is important. Simon Axler isn’t truly self-deprecating, or humble, even. He is driven by self-pity and this means that he needs to act in a self-deprecating enough manner in order to convince himself. All of this is so transparent and pathetic that we have no problem believing him when he said that he lost his magic, his talent for acting.

Axler is one of the least perceptive characters in recent fiction. His constant self-absorption also means that other people only enter as a kind of censored and distorted side-show. These characters, as well as Axler himself, will remind the reader of other characters in Roth’s oeuvre, just less forcefully drawn, created in a considerably less inspired manner. If some of that material wasn’t so disappointingly thin, one could dismiss The Humbling as ‘more of the same’. Instead, it’s sort of ‘less of the same’, if you get my drift. Pegeen is an exception. A dominant, powerful character in her own right, she resists Axler’s greedy narrative grasp now and then, either insisting on telling a story as a third person personal narrator or even withdrawing the sought-after information from his narrative completely, leaving behind only the bare fact of having informed him. In Roth’s exceedingly well written novel, this is of course indicative of her character, of the role she is to play in their relationship and in the narrative and ideational structure of the book. In fact, the discourses on gender and sexuality that the book engages are almost all centered around Pegeen; she is the active force propelling the book forward, snapping it out of the meanderingly self-absorbed narrative of Axler’s, just as she snaps Axler out of his own depressions.

Although Pegeen and Axler do not really argue, there is, in fact, a struggle going on, behind the happy facade. Axler is used to being top dog, and I would argue that Pegeen’s homosexual history threatens him, even as her apparent relinquishment of the homosexual life style may tickle his self-image as a potent man. Axler’s and Pegeen’s relationship is almost exclusively sexual and it is in bed where Axler has to cede control first. An old man, with all the frailties that old age implies, he isn’t actually capable of being on top any more, which necessitates Pegeen’s taking over of that role. This may sound like an unimportant detail but as their relationship progresses, her climbing into the saddle, so to say, proves to be but the first step of many until, at the end, she completely controls the sexual part of the relationship. However, we might need to add a caveat here. Since all this is filtered through Axler, we should consider the whole story as being part of his incessant self-pity. With all his ailments, losing his sexual potency and dominance may be one of the most important fears preying on his mind, but there are actually no indicators of having an unreliable narrator on our hands, no contradictions, just his annoying and pompous voice leading the way through the story.

Axler is a misogynist, with a very low opinion of women and an even lower opinion of their capability of forming an opinion of their own. When Pegeen discusses her relationship with her father, Axler accuses her of being dependent upon his paternal opinion, of trying to get back in his good graces, an accusation that he will continue to level at her throughout their strange and dysfunctional relationship. He is also vaguely homophobic although I would suggest that the evidence for his homophobia may be an offshoot of his misogyny. There is a very revealing phrase in the book when a customer winkingly suggests that Axler, in the process of getting her an expensive haircut, is her ‘sugar daddy’. Axler, indignant, thinks

All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.

The focus, correctly, is on what “he would want”, for instance losing that “mannish” haircut of hers. Everything that he has to say about her and her lesbian relationships is dismissive and, as I said, vaguely homophobic. Behind this, however, I’d argue, isn’t homophobia at all. Instead, Axler’s clearly confused by a woman who doesn’t need a man, who takes matters into her own hands; what more important to him is that, sexually, she is still more independent and even straps on a makeshift dick and gets to work. Arguably, this is what awakes a desire in him to sire children with her, as a means to tie her to the old roles he’s used to. As an actor he completely slipped into his character’s roles, living them, and so it is in real life as well, where he is, similarly, trapped in roles and subterfuges. He is so trapped in his roles that he need to will himself to enact a role from a play by Chekhov in order to have a certain freedom of actions. This conflict, between traditional and modern roles, as well as between the attractiveness of soft-spoken women and the danger that is posed by the possibility of them stepping out of the narrow lane that traditional roles accord them, this conflict is a topos that keeps resurfacing in the book, sometimes through the literary references, sometimes through minor characters that appear onstage and disappear again like Sybil van Buren, who is torn between killing herself and killing her husband.

It is interesting that a novel with such an arrogant protagonist would be called The Humbling. You’d expect him to get his comeuppance, wouldn’t you? But with an ego like that this can’t, of course, work. The book is not called ‘Humility’, it is not about someone being humbled and attaining humility. Rather, its title is focusing on the process of humbling. George Bosworth Burch, in his introduction to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s The Steps of Humility, sums up the latter by focusing on three steps: “humility, love and contemplation. They lead respectively to knowledge of truth in yourself, knowledge of truth in your neighbor, and knowledge of Truth itself.” It’s not hard to see how St. Bernard’s scheme could well be the one Roth based his novel’s structure on, but with a twist. His protagonist is an actor, and he en-acts these steps, but the deeper level of recognition, of knowledge, is closed off to him, and the contrast between what is enacted and what lies below that informs much of the book’s tension.

In moments like these, we see why Roth is such a highly regarded writer, but his tricks and games and erudition don’t save the novel which never quite takes off. In many places it reads like a draft. Well written, but flaccid, out of shape. Roth doesn’t deliver the punch the way he used to. What’s worse, ever since Everyman he seems to draw mainly from his own work. Axler, the old actor, is less an original and vivid creation than an inside look at some of the old and cranky artists that have always populated his work. At times, he reads like the voice of Ghost Writer‘s E. I. Lonoff, but as an artist, Axler’s less exacting, less careful. Still, all said and done, The Humbling is certainly Philip Roth’s best and most readable novel since The Plot Against America. It’s certainly worth buying and reading if you enjoy Roth’s work in general. If you don’t like him, this book won’t sway you.

A short personal note (January 2013). As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.