There has been a spate of novels about the last glimmerings of love or the dying of the light by older male writers. J M Coetzee has been at it with his new novel Diary of a Bad Year, Richard Ford in The Lay of the Land, and Philip Roth has visited this territory twice previously: in Everyman he described ageing as carnage and in The Dying Animal David Kepesh articulated Roth's new obsession with death, which has all but displaced sex. This time he has done it in the person of his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who has featured in nine novels. Zuckerman is the original unreliable narrator, sometimes swapping and distorting the facts, sometimes writing or appearing in a metafiction, the deliberate signposting of literary devices. So we are cautioned before we start on this book: is this Zuckerman writing about a real event or an imagined event? Is this Zuckerman's attempt at a last novel? Or Zuckerman's recreation of Roth's state of mind?
I was one of the few people who did not think the history of the narrator's health problems in Everyman, which Roth saw as a way of writing a life, was a success. I thought I detected in that book a certain diminution of Roth's powers, a lack of irony and a heaviness of touch. Exit Ghost, I regret, reinforces that feeling. This is a book about a famous writer who has been living in seclusion in the Berkshires, and returns, post 9/11, to Manhattan, to see his doctor, but on a whim decides to swap homes with a young couple, both of them would-be writers. This couple want to make the reverse journey to seclusion and safety while Nathan Zuckerman left Manhattan 11 years earlier when he was subjected to anti-Semitic harassment and feared for his life. Now, back in New York, he falls hopelessly in love with Jamie Logan, the young Texan woman who is one half of the couple with whom he is going to swap. But we already know that Zuckerman is impotent and incontinent; indeed he has only come to New York to have an injection of collagen into the neck of his bladder.
There are indications early on that the novel is not entirely under control, prolix when it should be terse and strangely repetitive. Despite his impotence, Zuckerman sets about trying to win Jamie Logan from her Jewish husband Billie Davidoff. In the course of one fraught week in Manhattan he also encounters Richard Kliman, a would-be biographer of E I Lonoff – a long dead writer revered by Zuckerman – and Amy Belette, the woman for whom Lonoff left his wife, Hope, 40 years ago. Discourses on literary muck-raking, dumbed-down literature and a long peroration on George Plimpton seem either half-hearted or irrelevant.
There are moments when Roth is at his best, particularly in his final confrontation with Kliman and his easy slip-sliding between the real and the imagined. But at other times there is a distressing clunkiness which adds unintended irony to Zuckerman's fears about his declining powers as a writer.
This is a very long way from American Pastoral, one of the finest novels of the late 20th century; for all that, everything Roth writes is a blessing for which his devotees are grateful.
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