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Friday, July 20, 2012

Philip Roth -- Exit Ghost

I enjoyed reading the tale of Nathan Zuckerman, as I have enjoyed the other Roth books about this colorful and complex protagonist.  The story is less a Rip Van Winkle tale (as otherwise introduced in the book's dust cover) but rather a tale of a man who returns to an environment he had left 11 years ago and he returns much changed (unlike Rip Van Winkle who after all the years remains the same lazy bum).  Zuckerman's escape from New York City took him to a reclusive bungalow in Berkshire is interrupted as he is in need of a medical procedure, but as he returns (and perhaps a bit too rushed) people from his past begin to magically appear before him.  The most prominent of these is Amy Bellette, the former lover of one E.I. Lonoff, a writer Zuckerman had much admired when he was just starting out as a writer.  The scene when Zuckerman sees Amy again for the first time in almost 50 years is a bit rushed--I don't say this as criticism but rather to just point out the event that precipitates quite a few others.  At any rate, Zuckerman remembers her voice and that is what unsettles his return to the city.

Exit Ghost is a novel of various themes.  To be sure, Zuckerman returns to the city in fear of what this return might mean for his future, but the Nathan Zuckerman of the past, the adventurous, daring man of younger years still breaks through the veil of fear.  He's not, however, exactly holding on stubbornly to his youth.  A prostate problem is only significant to him in as much as it disrupts his daily routines in his solitude--a swim in the local swimming pool is out of the question because he has become incontinent and wearing a diaper of sorts.  A procedure to alleviate this is what drives him out of his solitude and into the city.  He can't wait to return to Berkshire but in a moment of impulse he wonders if he can, in fact, survive the city and its demands.  Out of the same impulse he finds a classified ad by a couple who is looking to swap their Manhattan apartment for a place just like Zuckerman's.  When he visits the apartment to meet the young couple, he immediately becomes taken by the young woman and thus the novel turns to a Zuckerman less in control of his desires and wishing for a youth never to be had again.  Instead, there's a series of "He/She" dialogue that he writes on hotel stationary that fulfills the outcome he desires from the connection to this young, beautiful woman.  In reality, Jamie is cold and terse, even rude to Zuckerman's advances but he persists on the hunt regardless of the outcome.  It is here that the novel becomes even faster paced.  I am not sure if all the pieces fit in as well as Roth intended--perhaps I lack the understanding of technique in fiction to see why these connections are made.  Zuckerman becomes the target of a young man (an ex-boyfriend of Jamie's) who is trying to write a biography of E.I. Lonoff, a writer Zuckerman is willing to protect from this ill-timed (Lonoff's work has been forgotten and Zuckerman doesn't really want it resurrected by a controversial bio).  The biographer, Kliman, is in "possession" of a terrible secret from Lonoff's youth that he is looking to corroborate and publish as the centerpiece of the biography.  From here on, the novel is a zig-zagging of connections and characters clashing.  Zuckerman wants to call off the deal to swap living places with Jamie and her husband, but is unable to gather the courage to do so.  The resolution is quite unclear and scattered, and Zuckerman closes the account with a final "He/She" dialogue that reveals little about his relationship to Jamie Logan (other than what he imagines) and about his own fading self.

Where Exit Ghost fails (and I say this with all due respect) is in the overly-political themes, all about the post 9/11 and the events that followed, primarily the invasion of Iraq and the election of 2004.  The novel was published in 2007, and along with "The Plot Against America" stand out for their anti-Republican leanings.  While I don't object to this in any specific way, it strikes me as an indirect way of taking advantage of the political climate of the 2000s which was neither as one-sided as it was clearly defined.

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