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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

Depending on whom you talk to, Philip Roth is either an unparalleled literary genius or a gross old man obsessed with sex. Exit Ghost seems to offer a third alternative: he’s probably both.

Nathan Zuckerman is back as the protagonist of Exit Ghost. An obvious stand-in for the author himself, Zuckerman has been narrator and relater of many of Roth’s best fictions, from The Ghost Writer through the trilogy of novels comprising American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Zuckerman is a famous and controversial author whose novels have sparked outrage over their portrayals of women and American Jews. The novels follow his heyday and lead to his eventual retreat to the Berkshires and the quiet life of the mind.

Exit Ghost takes place in 2004, eleven years after Zuckerman fled New York in response to threats on his life provoked by his fiction. Ill health is what has drawn him back to the city, as treatment for prostate cancer has rendered him impotent and incontinent (Roth is unsparing in drawing out Zuckerman’s humiliations in old age.) A chance encounter with someone he knew fleetingly a long time ago, in the time The Ghost Writer takes place, leads him to impulsively answer a newspaper ad for a house exchange and reemerge into society.

The slight novel follows Zuckerman’s stay in New York while he and the writing couple he has agreed to switch properties work out all the details. Zuckerman is inevitably drawn into their world, the world of the just-starting out literary people, a world he left long ago. Zuckerman, and one gets the sense Roth, find this world far worse off than when he left it.

The writing couple, mild-mannered pushover Billy and old-money seductress Jamie, are fleeing New York for much the same reason Zuckerman did: fear. Jamie’s worry over the potential of another terrorist attack, and her increasing lack of trust in the Bush administration, are affecting her work. Zuckerman, who watches the 2004 election results come in with the couple, has so far removed himself from the world that he barely knows anything about the campaign, and infuriates the younger writers with his seeming condescension.

Zuckerman also struggles with a fried of Billy’s and Jamie’s, who wants to write a biography of Zuckerman’s literary hero and one of the central characters of The Ghost Writer, E.I. Lonoff. Disgusted by the would-be biographer’s bald ambition and lack of consideration, Zuckerman attempts to corral his strength to oppose and defeat him, at the same time he’s trying to corral his manhood for one last attempt at a sexual dalliance with Jamie. (Thankfully, this remains a goal he achieves solely in his own fiction.)

Exit Ghost is a novel-length musing on the state of the literary world and the people who pursue it. Roth’s and Zuckerman’s position becomes clear in the novel’s coda, which spends a curious amount of time lamenting the passing, then recent, of George Plimpton, the stylized sophisticate who founded The Paris Review. Plimpton is an epitome of the kind of person who either does not exist in today’s world or does not receive anywhere near the same recognition. Roth, through Zuckerman, surveys the modern literary landscape and finds it filled with hustlers, charlatans, and sycophants. It may be the most high-brow version of an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn ever written.

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