Books and Arts

Permanent Groping

By

Exit Ghost


By Philip Roth


(Houghton Mifflin, 304 pp.,


$26)


I.


Pop quiz: guess the writer. Born in Newark in the 1930s to a middle-class Jewish family, by the age of twenty-three he had provoked the ire of his former friends and neighbors with a handful of brilliant stories that mercilessly skewered Jewish characters as narrow-minded, repressed, and provincial. A provocative best-seller about sex and the Jewish mother brought him fame, fortune, and the attention of beautiful actresses. Along the way he picked up and discarded several wives, but around age sixty he exiled himself to rural life far from New York City, emerging only to publish, with remarkable regularity, a parade of novels that have earned him recognition as one of the greatest living American writers.


Anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary fiction would likely identify Philip Roth from this description. But that is the wrong answer. I am in fact thinking of Nathan Zuckerman, who has served as Roth's doppelganger, mouthpiece, straw man, and Grand (or not so grand) Inquisitor for more than half of this writer's remarkable, tumultuous career.


But the quiz isn't really fair, is it? Well, neither is the increasingly tiresome game of metafictional cat-and-mouse that Roth has been playing with his readers for almost three decades. The series of "Zuckerman novels"--which began in 1979 with The Ghost Writer and apparently ends now with the publication of Exit Ghost, the ninth and supposedly last of Zuckerman's escapades--has served Roth as both a bully pulpit and a peep show. While haranguing his readers about the unbreachable chasm between life and art and ceaselessly ridiculing those sorry literalists who would dare to read his biography into his fiction, he has also titillated them with the apparent disclosure of ever more correspondences between Zuckerman and himself. All their noisy provocations notwithstanding, the Zuckerman novels were always based on a tease.


At its worst--the self-absorbed excess of Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson, the second and third installments of the "Zuckerman Bound" trilogy, devoted to cataloguing the tribulations of Zuckerman's fame and the ignorance of all those who surround him--the Zuckerman charade has felt like a meanspirited literary trick, in which the reader cannot resist regarding Zuckerman as his author's puppet and yet loathes herself for falling into the trap as Roth/Zuckerman argues ever more stridently for the difference between his life and his novels. "Mother, you know you are yourself and not Mrs. Carnovsky, and I know that you are yourself and not Mrs. Carnovsky," Zuckerman tells his long-suffering mother when she complains that her friends assume she is the model for the caricaturishly overbearing Jewish mother in his best- seller, an obvious stand-in for Portnoy's Complaint. "You and I know that it was very nearly heaven thirty years ago." Who describes adolescence as "very nearly heaven"? This is Zuckerman (and Roth) at his least convincing. Anyway, the question of reality and imagination in art, of mimesis and artifice in the novel, is the oldest question of all. Where is the intellectual excitement in merely repeating the question again and again?


Still, in some of the Zuckerman books the Zuckerman persona can feel altogether essential, a brilliant dramatization of the layers of mediation that always exist between author and reader. Consider The Ghost Writer, in which Zuckerman is a twenty-three-year-old aspiring writer making a pilgrimage to the home of his literary hero E.I. Lonoff, whose uncompromising approach to the writing life offers a model to which Zuckerman will aspire for the rest of his life. The isolated, publicity-shunning Lonoff has posted a line from Henry James's story "The Middle Years" on the wall of his study like a benediction: "We work in the dark--we do what we can--the rest is the madness of art." In Lonoff, whose only occupation is to "turn sentences around," Zuckerman perceives the perfect separation of life and art, which in his own brief career have already become messily entangled.


After he published a story in The New Yorker negatively depicting Jewish characters, Zuckerman received a hostile letter from Judge Leopold Wapter, a self-appointed pillar of the community, which asked him point-blank: "If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?" Alone later that evening in Lonoff's study, he attempts to write a defense to his father, but is interrupted by a conversation in the room above between Lonoff and a beautiful young woman named Amy Bellette, who has taken refuge in Lonoff's house for reasons unknown to Zuckerman, and who appears to be pleading with Lonoff to leave his wife for her. Afterward Zuckerman curses himself--not for his eavesdropping, but for the poverty of his own imagination. "Oh, if only I could have imagined the scene I'd overheard! If only I could invent as presumptuously as real life!... But if I ever did, what then would they think of me, my father and his judge?"


And then he proceeds to do just that. Around the mysterious figure of Amy Bellette, Zuckerman concocts a fantasy so strange it could almost be true: he imagines the beautiful young woman with the "fetching" accent to be Anne Frank, who has miraculously survived the Holocaust only to find, in America, her own version of undesired literary celebrity. As the ultimate comeback to his father and the judge, he marries her. "Oh, how I have misunderstood my son," Nathan imagines his father saying. "How mistaken we have been!"


In an exquisitely imagined scene, Zuckerman pictures Amy/Anne reading in Time magazine of her diary's publication and deciding not to contact her father, because she knows that if she were discovered to be alive, the power of her work would dissipate. "Were [the diary] known to be the work of a living writer, it would never be more than it was: a young teenager's diary of her trying years in hiding," Zuckerman muses. "But dead she had something more to offer than amusement for ages 10-15; dead she had written, without meaning to or trying to, a book with the force of a masterpiece to make people finally see." She chose to hide her identity, he imagines, for the sake of her art. And that is what makes her the perfect bride for young Nathan Zuckerman: like him, she is willing to sacrifice her family--or, more exactly, to disavow her father-- for her work.


But with this tidy bit of fictional revisionism, Zuckerman inadvertently acknowledges what he has been exerting himself so strenuously to deny. For despite what Zuckerman, Roth, or any other writer might wish, the biographical data of a writer cannot help but influence the reception of his or her work. It does matter that Anne Frank's diary was written by a teenager who died in the Holocaust, and not by a twenty-six-year-old who emigrated to America and is "doing very well." And it matters that Goodbye, Columbus and "The Conversion of the Jews" were written not by Goebbels, as Judge Wapter's letter hyperbolically suggests, but by a young Jewish man from Newark. Perhaps it should not matter, and if one were to judge the works solely by aesthetic criteria, perhaps it would not matter. Perhaps there exists, somewhere in a lonely corner of the ivory tower, a reader capable of hewing to such a pristine practice. But I am inclined to agree with another of Roth's characters, a vicious critic called Milton Appel (who bears a certain resemblance to Irving Howe, the critic who ferociously withdrew his initial support for Roth): "I know that there's a difference between characters and authors; but I also know that grown-ups should not pretend that it's quite the difference they tell their students it is." Nobody, not Henry James and not E.I. Lonoff, reads or writes literature in a vacuum.


The Counterlife, the fifth Zuckerman novel, pursued the exercise in metafiction to a kind of vanishing point. The book begins with Zuckerman imagining the death of his younger brother, Henry, during heart surgery. The medication Henry had been taking for his heart condition had rendered him impotent, and to fix this condition he chose to undergo a risky bypass operation--not for the sake of his marriage (despite the version his wife gives in her eulogy), but to continue his affair with his assistant. The second and third chapters offer an alternate life-path for Henry: in this version, he has survived the operation only to desert both wife and girlfriend several months later and emigrate to Israel, where he joins a militant band of settlers on the West Bank. And the fourth chapter opens up yet another alternate reality. Here Nathan finds himself in almost precisely the predicament in which Henry had been in the first section, though with a twist. Impotent, he is conducting an unconsummated affair with the young mother who lives in the apartment upstairs from him, a gentile woman (named Maria, no less) from Britain.


Like Henry, Nathan dies on the operating table in pursuit of sexual fulfillment, and after his funeral Henry--who is neither dead nor in Israel, but still more or less happily married to his wife--steals from Nathan's apartment the manuscript of his most recent book, the opening chapter of which (just like The Counterlife) recounts Henry's infidelities in meticulous detail. Henry is infuriated to discover that Nathan has shamelessly plundered the facts of his life without even bothering to change the names: "This exceeded everything, the worst imaginable abuse of 'artistic liberty.'" Maria, too, sneaks into Zuckerman's apartment to read the book, and is particularly intrigued by its fifth chapter, which presents a fantasy version of their future married life in England, complete with a house in London and a baby on the way. But she is by far the more sympathetic reader. Early on in their relationship, she had asked him, "You won't write about me, will you?" "I can't write 'about' anyone," he told her. "Even when I try it comes out someone else. " (Tell it to Henry.) After reading the novel, she has a long conversation with an invisible interlocutor who turns out to be Zuckerman's ghost. She tells him that she was angered by some of the distortions in the novel, but that she forgives him for it, having understood the essential truth of Zuckerman's slippage between fiction and reality:


I began to wonder which was real, the woman in the book or the one I was pretending to be upstairs. Neither of them was particularly "me." I was acting just as much upstairs; I was not myself just as much as Maria in the book was not myself. Perhaps she was. I began not to know which was true and which was not, like a writer when he comes to believe that he's imagined what he hasn't.


It seems an ominous coincidence that this novel appeared in 1986, during the heyday of the postmodernists in English departments in the United States. Roth has never expressed any love for them or their theories, but his project has been weirdly similar to theirs: to shake our confidence in the distinction between true and false, to garble the categories of "truth" and "literature." Such a campaign is much more than an affirmation of the imagination. Its result is to lead the reader into a kind of weightless literary wonderland, where words neither mean what they say nor say what they mean. Sometimes this clever program of confusion may be, in its way, a truthful representation of reality; but sometimes it is a highly skilled variety of cynicism, or just plain nonsense.


II.


The Nathan Zuckerman of the early novels was a credible figure: a frenetically intelligent, haplessly neurotic young Jewish writer, enough of a type to be recognizable, yet idiosyncratic enough to be original. But the effusive, multi-layered re-imaginings of The Counterlife marked a break of sorts, after which Zuckerman's personhood dwindles. He shows up to offer an ironic commentary on Roth's autobiography The Facts, another concoction of metafiction that finally feels like a very long time spent in the seminar room with Professor Roth debating the "reality" of literature. Here Zuckerman is fulfilling the dream of The Counterlife, which was apparently not a fantasy after all: he is still married to Maria, and she is still pregnant. He tells Roth, with a generous helping of irony, that he should stick to fiction: "Your medium for the really merciless self-evisceration, your medium for genuine self- confrontation, is me." Maria puts it more directly: "Surely there must come a point where even he is bored with his own life's story."


As if in response, the next three Zuckerman novels were in a decidedly different vein. His powerful "American trilogy"--American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain--is narrated by Zuckerman, but the main figure of each novel is a character only tangentially connected to him. And in marked contrast to the first Zuckerman trilogy, he offers very little information about his own circumstances. We know only that he has grown weary of life in New York and has retired to a two-room cabin on a mountain in the Berkshires, where he devotes his days entirely to writing, Lonoff-like, with little social interaction. The period of isolation predates only slightly his diagnosis with prostate cancer, the treatment for which has left him impotent and incontinent. His parents, we know, are dead; his latest marriage (if it ever occurred) is apparently over; his child (if it ever existed) has been forgotten.


Zuckerman's abandonment of his inner life as a primary subject for his fiction makes sense in these novels, and indeed it comes as a bit of a relief. Swede Levov and Ira Ringold and Coleman Silk are not just more Zuckerman spawn, evermultiplying fictional replicas of the same model; each is a fully imagined character with his own experiences and his own wounds, his own persuasive interiority. Zuckerman, by contrast, is not required to be a real character in these books: he is nothing more than a framing device, a teller for the tale, a ghost in the literary machine. It is not entirely clear what purpose Zuckerman serves as the narrator of these novels: could they not have been told successfully without him in the background, as less coy and more straightforward narratives, with a conventionally authoritative narrator? You could argue, of course, that the inherently subjective and fallible Zuckerman, the exemplar of the unreliable narrator, provides a useful check on the racing motor of these novels, usefully interrupting their smooth trajectory to remind us that people are unknowable, and that memory is fraught with failures; but it is worth noting also that those same deep themes have been brilliantly treated in novels that do not resort to such games and contraptions.


Exit Ghost--as its title implies-- is a throwback: a novel in which Zuckerman is once again the chief actor. It begins with the return to New York of the writer, who is now seventy-one and has been in his self-imposed exile for eleven years, ever since (we now learn) he began receiving anti-Semitic death threats at his Upper West Side apartment. (It seems quite implausible that he would never have mentioned this as a reason for leaving in any of the previous three novels, until one remembers that Zuckerman is not meant to be a real character.) He has come back to the city to undergo a medical procedure that holds out the promise of restoring his bladder function, a particularly humiliating casualty of the prostatectomy. (Roth has never spared the grisly details of bodily functions, and Zuckerman's humiliation pains the reader with every mention of his plastic briefs and soaked cotton pads.) Coming out of the doctor's office, he has a visitation from the past: an elderly woman with "wraithlike looks," wearing a hospital gown styled to look like a dress, her head half-shaved and traced with a surgical scar.


The woman is Amy Bellette, whom Zuckerman recognizes at once, despite not having seen her since that night at Lonoff's house nearly fifty years before. All he knows of her is that after that evening, Lonoff left his wife and lived with Amy for five years, until his death from cancer, writing a novel that was never published. But instead of approaching her, Zuckerman goes to a restaurant, where he discovers in The New York Review of Books an advertisement placed by a couple who wish to trade their Upper West Side apartment for a "quiet rural retreat." Impulsively, he calls the number. The wife is Jamie Logan, a thirty- year-old beauty with a story published in The New Yorker, with whom Zuckerman falls headlong into infatuation.


If Henry James was the patron saint of The Ghost Writer, the presiding spirit of Exit Ghost is Conrad, whose novella The Shadow-Line--about a seaman who quits his job and then changes his mind, only to find himself put in charge of a cursed ship--is invoked as a kind of touchstone. "The drama that is associated usually with the young as they fully begin to enter life ... can also startle and lay siege to the aged (including the aged resolutely armed against all drama), even as circumstance readies them for departure," Zuckerman muses. In addition to the drama of his longing for Jamie--an "affair" that will take place entirely in his imagination--he finds himself also thrust suddenly back into literary politics when Jamie's friend Richard Kliman asks to interview him about E.I. Lonoff. Kliman plans to write a biography of Lonoff that will reveal the writer's dark secret: an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. (Lonoff has been thought to be a stand-in for Bernard Malamud, but in death he takes on shades of Henry Roth.) Kliman has apparently deduced this from reading Lonoff's unpublished novel, thus proving himself to be just the sort of literary critic that Zuckerman has always hated. "The dirt-seeking snooping calling itself research is just about the lowest of literary rackets," he tells Kliman, who retorts, "And the savage snooping calling itself fiction?"


And so we return to the old merry-go-round, which has gotten creakier in the years since The Ghost Writer but still shows no sign of coming to a halt. The figures in Exit Ghost--Amy Bellette, Jamie Logan, Richard Kliman, Zuckerman himself--serve primarily as pegs on which Zuckerman hangs his favorite obsessions: the relationship between life and art, and the relationship between a man and a woman. The link between creative genius and sexual power has been a crucial aspect of Zuckerman's self-definition from the start. "When I came upon Babel's description of the Jewish writer as a man with autumn in his heart and spectacles on his nose," he told us in The Ghost Writer, "I had been inspired to add, 'and blood in his penis,' and had then recorded the words like a challenge--a flaming Dedalian formula to ignite my soul's smithy."


The youthful Zuckerman was as yet unaware of the severe limitations of such a formula. If a writer defines himself by the blood in his penis, what happens when that vein runs dry? One response is the way Zuckerman has conducted his life up till now: retreating to his mountain to live and write in solitude, focusing his creative energies on the stories of others. The second is the one that is explored in Exit Ghost: to throw himself once again into the desperate pursuit of what he cannot have. The bitterness of this futile exercise evokes the novel's most intense moments. "'The center of gravity,'" Zuckerman quotes Chekhov, "'should reside in two: he and she.' It should. It has. It won't ever again."


There is no denying the pathos of Zuckerman's frustrated desire, his compulsion to dive "into the mutability again" despite his knowledge that he is no longer capable. But the fixation on Jamie Logan is a very slight support on which to rest the burden of this book. Zuckerman finds his outlet in writing a series of short dramatic sketches called He and She, in which the main figures-- named only by those pronouns, but obviously Jamie and Zuckerman--banter and flirt. Their conversation is agonizingly superficial, focusing mainly on Jamie's experience with men; and when it gets to literary matters, it becomes even sillier. "Anyone who's famous, everyone knows everything about them--so they think," Jamie tells Zuckerman. "But with you, you've written these things that make you famous among a certain group of people. You're no Tom Cruise." (He responds, preposterously, "Who's Tom Cruise?") The real-life Jamie Logan, by contrast, is drawn far more believably: she politely rebuffs Zuckerman's advances.


But Zuckerman is deeply affected by his writings about Jamie, which he seems to regard as both more satisfying and more "true" than a real-life affair:


The conversations she and I don't have [are] more affecting even than the conversations we do have, and the imaginary "She" [is] vividly at the middle of her character as the actual "she" will never be. 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 uncertainty 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.


What Roth seems to be offering here is a defense of the whole Zuckerman project. If the way one conducts one's life is sometimes no more real than fiction, as Maria discovered in The Counterlife, then why shouldn't the "unlived" life be equally as real? And so Zuckerman himself, the "ghost writer" of Roth's fiction, becomes more real to the reader than his creator. The writer need not choose between life and art; he can live just as fully--if not more so- - through his creations.


Like the writer in James's story "The Middle Years," from which Lonoff's motto in The Ghost Writer was derived, Zuckerman is preoccupied with the way he will be remembered after he dies. And like Everyman, Roth's previous novel, Exit Ghost seeks to dramatize the violence wreaked by age. Zuckerman's cotton pads and Amy's surgical scar are nowhere near as harrowing as the deterioration that has begun to take place in their minds. In the novel's most powerful scene, Zuckerman visits Amy in the squalid walk-up that she now inhabits, filled with relics from her time with Lonoff: his reading chair, his desk lamp. She tells him that she has lived all her life still in love with Lonoff, needing no interlocutor other than his voice in her head, until the tumor came "and I couldn't hear him, not above the incessant roar." Zuckerman, too, imagines a visitation from Lonoff's ghost as he enters Amy's apartment, though in his case Lonoff, like the "compound ghost" in Eliot's "Little Gidding," has come to warn him about the fate of the writer in old age: "For last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice." Zuckerman claims not to remember the "frightful prophecy" that follows in the poem, but Amy provides him with epitaph enough: "Reading/ writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era," she reports that Lonoff has told her.


Is Zuckerman truly finished? The novel gives indications that this is so, though it leaves a typical Rothian loophole. Zuckerman, we discover, has lost control not only of his bladder, but also of his memory: he has begun to forget everyday words, and carries with him a notebook to remind himself of conversations and errands. He describes the work of writing as "permanent groping," a "labor every day against the threat of incoherence." This is the point at which one feels obligated to say that of course this must be Zuckerman speaking, not Roth, because this novel could not have been written by a man not in possession of his full faculties. But aesthetically speaking, alas, this is not entirely so. There are wonderful moments in Exit Ghost, but there are also passages of great tedium; and some of the details of contemporary life, on which Roth always prides himself, here ring oddly off-key. (The discussions of current events, particularly a strange scene in which Zuckerman watches the 2004 election returns with Jamie and her husband, contain some real howlers.)


Still, Roth being Roth, it does not seem impossible that he might have done this on purpose. How better to illustrate Zuckerman's decline than to have him produce a bad novel? But I find it hard to believe that even Roth, whatever his love for trickery, would surrender his talent to such a perversion. Yet is one really to think that Roth, in Zuckerman's voice, speaks of his own deterioration? In some of his recent books, it is true, an elegiac tone has come to the fore; but still it seems unfathomable that the writer who not so long ago produced works as stimulating and varied as Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain--works that have so quickly become touchstones of contemporary American fiction--could be resigned, at the age of seventy-four, to his literary retirement. If Roth truly wishes to demonstrate once and for all the gulf that separates him from his alter ego, he must give up the ghost. Nathan Zuckerman must die. And as the puerile provocateur rests in peace, his restless creator may continue to flourish.

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