Exit Ghost, By Philip Roth

The twilight of talent?

In a recent New York Times survey of the best American fiction published in the past 25 years, the septuagenarian Philip Roth was easily the most represented author. His late novels have been showered with accolades, only the Nobel Prize eluding him. It is an irony, not lost on Roth the éminence grise, that the same author who began by decrying the sanctification of literature (in one story turning his protagonist into a giant mammary gland) is now treated with po-faced veneration.

Exit Ghost is Roth's ninth and, we are assured, last "Zuckerman Book" (although nothing is certain when it comes to his doppelgänger, Nathan Zuckerman). This breathtaking series began with The Ghost Writer (1979), set in 1956 with the 23-year-old Zuckerman visiting a reclusive writer, EI Lonoff (based loosely on Bernard Malamud), in search of a surrogate literary father. Zuckerman has been rejected by his real father for writing a story based on a family scandal.

The antagonistic response to Zuckerman's fiction, as Roth notes in his autobiography, is not dissimilar to the reaction he encountered after he published the stories in Goodbye, Columbus (1959). After The Ghost Writer, Roth spent over a thousand pages in The Counterlife (1987) and Zuckerman Bound (1989) trying to unite Zuckerman's "dwarf drama" with the essential issues of the day, "war, destruction, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism".

In this early incarnation, Zuckerman is above all a comic figure who highlights the unbridgeable gap between serious and trivial history. In these books, serious history happens elsewhere. Much of Roth's Jewish humour results from the comic disjunction between the familial world of his alter ego and the "world of massive historical pain", as he puts it in The Anatomy Lesson (1983). How could Zuckerman, born into a comfortable lower-middle class home in Newark, New Jersey, compete with the suffering on the European continent?

More recently, a mature Zuckerman has re-entered postwar history with a vengeance. In a trilogy of ambitious novels – American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) – Roth ranges through the McCarthyist 1950s and the libertine 1960s, and culminates with the politically correct 1990s. These voluminous books move Zuckerman away from his "dwarf drama" and engage with full-bloodied history as part of the fabric of the US.

One reason for the reverential reception of late Roth is that he has shrewdly appropriated the history of European suffering in his "American Trilogy" and the novels that followed. His late work speaks powerfully to post-11 September America, where a wounded nationhood is at the heart of its self-understanding. No longer is "war, destruction, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism" elsewhere as it can now be found in Zuckerman's backyard.

Exit Ghost, a sequel to The Ghost Writer, combines the earlier comic Zuckerman with a contemporary sense that death and suffering is everywhere. Forced back to New York in 2004 for a final medical examination, Zuckerman, now 71, starts to travel to Ground Zero ("where the biggest thing of all occurred") but decides instead to visit the Metropolitan Museum. After 11 reclusive years in the Berkshires studiously eschewing the world of war, politics and terrorism, the aged Zuckerman (who compares himself with Rip Van Winkle) is not about to become engagé.

And yet Exit Ghost is precisely about whether it is wise, or even possible, for the elderly Zuckerman to "start again" and re-engage with the all-consuming world of politics, sex and culture. Unlike his priapic younger self, Zuckerman, after prostate cancer, is impotent and incontinent and wears a "diaper". His life for the past decade has imitated that of EI Lonoff, who also lived in the Berkshires only to "turn sentences around". But after he encounters the 30-year-old "languid-looking" Jamie Logan, Zuckerman's aesthetic purity is replaced by the impure "bitter helplessness of a taunted old man dying to be whole again".

The title of Exit Ghost (a novel super-saturated with literary references) is a nod towards Hamlet as, after this stage direction, all mayhem breaks loose. Zuckerman's brand of mayhem is caused by a "crisis-brooding" younger generation defined by the Bush years (as his generation was by Vietnam), who repel and attract him in equal measure. The aptly-named Jamie no longer feels safe in New York and Zuckerman, in a moment of rashness, offers to swap houses with her and her husband, Billy Davidoff. After this encounter, Zuckerman discovers that their college friend, Richard Kliman, is researching a scurrilous biography of Lonoff which argues (in an allusion to the novelist Henry Roth) that his "secret" is an incestuous affair with his half-sister.

Roth has often spoken about the internecine warfare between appetite and renunciation (or the "Jewboy" and the "Nice Jewish Boy") that characterised Zuckerman and his brother, Henry. Mild, reasonable Billy (who is said to embody the curtailed spirit of the age) and Richard, dominant and aggressive, are a reprise of this conflict. Even though Zuckerman hates Kliman's "deadly literal-mindedness and vulgarity", and tries to kibosh his biography, the excitement of once again "taking someone on" is as seductive as Jamie's languidness.

At its best, the novel is a poignant meditation on the brutal deterioration of the body in old age. Amy Bellette, Lonoff's second wife, scarred with brain cancer and the history of the Holocaust, is easily Roth's most memorable character. Their generation are "ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era", but still fighting. Amy's counter-voice decisively answers the amoral certainties of Kliman. In stark contrast to the emotional depth of Amy, Zuckerman's prurient obsession with Jamie is, to say the least, one-dimensional.

Roth, like Zuckerman, is at the "twilight of [his] talent". The youthful Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer remembers Isaac Babel's definition of the Jewish writer as a "man with autumn in his heart and spectacles on his nose", but secretly adds to this description, "and blood in his penis". In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman's penis is a "spigot of wrinkled flesh" and, sadly, there is much in this sequel that is just as bloodless.

Bryan Cheyette is professor of modern literature, University of Reading; his new book, 'Diasporas of the Mind', will be published by Yale next year

Jonathan Cape £16.99 (292pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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