An actor, famous and fêted, at the peak of his career, steps on stage one night. Starting to speak, he finds that he simply can't do it any longer. He feels fake, inauthentic, unprepared, and, though he goes through the motions, it becomes apparent that his audience has perceived a change in him, too, and not one for the better. His gift, whatever it was, has gone. How does a life continue when the talent it rested on is abruptly removed?
It's a risky subject for a novelist to take on, but Philip Roth's late career might seem to protect him against any suggestion that the disaster visited on Simon Axler, his actor protagonist, might have happened to him too. At an age when most novelists are happy to go on ploughing familiar ground, Roth's technical command has widened, deepened, and taken on newly ambitious subjects. The novels from 1995's Sabbath's Theater onwards are mesmerisingly good, and it is becoming a global scandal that so masterly a novelist is regularly overlooked for the Nobel Prize in favour of some Teutonic footler or other.
Having said that, The Humbling is not vintage Roth, despite its compelling premise. The bizarre series of episodes – mostly sexual encounters with women – which make up this short novel don't play to Roth's strengths. A mental patient talks Axler through an episode of hideous observed abuse; Axler's wife leaves him; and the lesbian daughter of some old actor friends of his embarks on a complicated and rather brutal affair with him.
In the past, Roth's virtuosity has lain in his densely envisaged fictional world, and in his unmatched ear for dialogue – he is about the only American novelist I can think of who can write a convincing conversation between English characters. Both of those merits have gone here; we don't really know what the setting of each episode looks like, and sometimes Roth seems to have forgotten too. A lengthy dialogue between Axler and his lover's ex neglects, in tone, the fact that Axler is pointing a gun at her all the way through.
When the dialogue falters, it suggests that a character has not really been heard or understood. Axler's lover Pegeen is a lesbian as envisaged by aged heterosexual male novelists, happy to embark on threesomes, to accept more feminine clothes and expensive ladylike haircuts. One of her exes has decided to take hormones, grow a moustache and have a penis installed; another vengefully stalks around in the approved embittered-dyke fashion. None of them seems to talk like a human being: "I watch her in the pool. I watch her in the locker room. A rich kid. A privileged kid. She's never known a minute's hardship. She's perfect. Blond. Crystal blue eyes. Long legs. Strong legs. Perfect breasts."
And when the reader hears Pegeen observe that, "You really think you've fucked the lesbian out of me in 10 months," the deafening clang of sexual agendas being serviced drowns out any more humane voice. When the characters are so clearly puppets, without any power to disagree or act without reference to a single character's needs, we are not going to be moved or affected when they have an affair, walk away or commit suicide; the strings may be cut, but there will be another lot of puppets along in a minute.
As Axler's agent points out, his crisis is not so very unusual; the dream of standing before an audience, unable to act, is a near-universal nightmare. The Humbling disappoints because it avoids these universal implications, and veers off into a baroque world of the unique and fantastic, never quite deigning to make its world concrete or to give its characters the honour of an independent will.