An old man’s city visit

2008-01-09 00:00

Philip Roth has come a long way from his outrageous teen-Jewish-angst Portnoy’s Complaint, and Exit Ghost serves as something of a climax, with undertones of swan-song, at the end of a long and distinguished writing-career, spangled with numerous prestigious literary awards. And Roth’s pen seems as sharp as ever.

Exit Ghost (a type of ghost? Or is this a “stage-direction”? From Hamlet?) is the latest of the Zuckerman books, whose narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is now in his early 70s and battling with old-age problems: notably, chronic incontinence due to a prostate operation, a serious case of misanthropy and a compulsive desire to be left alone.

Having lived alone in rural isolation for 11 years, he comes back to Manhattan to visit a urologist who claims to be able to cure or alleviate incontinence. The procedure is unsuccessful. But Zuckerman also becomes involved, totally against his better judgment, with a young married couple who are looking to exchange their urban apartment for a rural hideaway, like Zuckerman’s; with an old flame who is now wrestling pitifully with a brain-tumour that is slowly ruining her mind; and with a pushy, trendy young male literary critic who is researching into some allegedly sordid details about a now-dead writer whom Zuckerman always hugely admired.

The spin-offs from these involvements are complex. One is that Zuckerman falls insanely in love with the young wife Jamie (who is about 40 years his junior) and develops an intense antipathy towards the literary critic (whom Zuckerman sees as a predatory muck-raker).

He also develops a strong affection for Jamie’s husband and a deep concern for the tumour victim. These interactions lead to much emotional upheaval. Occasionally, the narrative transforms into dramatic dialogue between ‘He’ and ‘She’, in which Zuckerman imagines himself and Jamie saying all the things which don’t get said in their real conversations but which are potentially there. In fact, the book ends with one such imaginary dialogue.

Zuckerman is, like Roth, an ageing, famous, Jewish writer (and there are doubtless many other autobiographical elements) — eloquent, bitter, highly intelligent. The story is often satirical and full of self-irony. It also paints a vivid portrait of post-9/11 America. There are detailed outbursts (in character) against the Bush administration and American paranoia; a scorching tirade against the cellphone culture; and there is much stimulating talk about literature and literary criticism. Altogether, a challenging, entertaining, poignant and absorbing novel.

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