Philip Roth — Exit Ghost

September 17, 2008 at 4:11 pm 5 comments

It’s becoming cliché to talk of Philip Roth’s “late flowering”. Between his 64th and 73rd years, he reeled off American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000), The Dying Animal (2001), The Plot Against America (2004) and Everyman (2006) — an oeuvre so rich, so filmable, so devourable that most novelists would happily call it a lifetime’s work. For Roth it took nine years. But Exit Ghost (2007) breaks the sequence — it’s his worst piece of fiction in a long time.

We join long-suffering Roth alterego Nathan Zuckerman in a nervy post-9/11 New York. Aging fast and disconnected from the world, he indulges in a house swap with a couple of trendy creatives so as to reimmerse himself in the “Here and Now”.

The first surprise is that knowledge of The Ghost Writer (1979), a novel published 30-odd years ago, is assumed. If you don’t know your E.I. Lonoff from your elbow, frustration will quickly ensue. This, then, is one for aficionados, though Roth geeks will be puzzled by the lack of continuity with The Human Stain. What happened to Les Farley? How come Zuckerman doesn’t know what the “World Wide Web” is, when he used to go on and on about emails and newsgroups?

Even allowing that Exit Ghost is an epilogue rather than a novel, it’s tepid stuff. Zuckerman, ultimately, has become an average old bloke with an average old bloke’s concerns: incontinence, impotence, senility, nostalgia, younger women. The book — though composed (of course) in witty, tight, marvellous prose — never rises above the mildly diverting. Perhaps for Roth, as for Zuckerman, Autumn is finally here.

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Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Roth Philip. Tags: , , , , , , .

J. M. Coetzee — Diary of a Bad Year Joseph O’Neill — Netherland

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Self  |  September 18, 2008 at 11:51 am

    I liked Exit Ghost though I acknowledge – in retrospect particularly as I’ve now read more of his earlier work – that it’s far from his best.

    But it’s interesting that one of the positive epithets you apply to his recent run of fiction is “filmable”. It’s true, no doubt – and the movie of American Pastoral cannot be far off, with all those high-octane exchanges between Merry and the Swede – but for me Roth is at his best when he’s less filmable, such as in the Zuckerman Bound books (The Ghost Writer et seq.), where much of the pleasure for me is in the playful toying with the relative positions of writer and character: the metafictional content, if that’s a good way of putting it.

    Having said that, of the six titles you cite above, I’ve read only three, so I could change my mind about that yet. (And don’t forget that Sabbath’s Theater (1995) is considered by many to be Roth par excellence. For me, it was the first book of his I read. It’s hardcore Roth – literally – and not the one for those who haven’t acquired the taste yet. I hated it.)

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  September 18, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Thanks John — I get the feeling you’re more a fan of “metafictional content” than I am. I’m probably too hooked on realism. But a gift for realism is certainly one of Roth’s many gifts — American Pastoral and The Human Stain must rank as two of the most compellingly, unnervingly true-to-life novels I’ve ever read.

  • 3. Trevor Berrett  |  October 4, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Jonathan, I’m enjoying your Roth reviews. I haven’t read Exit Ghost yet, but you saying it’s his worst since the 80s is actually encouraging to me! I loved everything he wrote then!

    I also had a reaction to your saying his books are filmable, not because I necessarily disagree, but I recently read an interview Roth gave where he said, “The Human Stain? Unwatchable.” Then he basically went down the list of all of his books that have been made into movies and said the same thing. His view of the matter is that he’s fine allowing anyone who wants to to adapt his books into movies, so he pretty much stays out of the way. But he’s never been too happy with the result, and I got the impression he didn’t think it was possible to put his books on film in any satisfactory way.

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  October 6, 2008 at 11:49 am

    I’m not at all surprised Roth is grumpy about the films of his books — I think most authors probably are! But even if the films are unwatchable, that doesn’t mean the books are unfilmable. There’s something hugely cinematic and vivid about American Pastoral and The Plot Against America in particular — great films yet to be made.

  • 5. Trevor Berrett  |  October 6, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    Good point, Jonathan. I know that American Pastoral has been optioned and may already be in production. We’ll see how they do.

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