By Philip Roth.
Houghton Mifflin, 304 pp, $26.00
HERE’S THE story. Nathan Zuckerman, the specter or doppelgänger Philip Roth has pursued across eight previous volumes of fiction, comes down to New York from his Berkshire mountaintop for the first time in 11 years. He’s in the city for a medical procedure designed to correct the incontinence he’s been suffering from ever since the prostate surgery that also left him impotent. On his way out of the hospital, he catches sight of Amy Bellette, the fetching and mysterious young woman he’d last run into half a century earlier—and we’d last run into in The Ghost Writer, the first Zuckerman novel—at the home of E.I. Lonoff, the ascetic Jewish short-story writer who was and still is Zuckerman’s literary hero. Amy is horribly transformed: a scarred, half-mad old woman. Zuckerman declines to approach her. Instead, idling in the city before returning home, he buys a copy of the New York Review of Books, scans the personals, and comes across an ad by a young literary couple looking to swap their Manhattan apartment for a New England retreat. Acting on impulse, Zuckerman heads over to meet them. He is Billy Davidoff, a nice Jewish boy. She is Jamie Logan, a beautiful shikse. Zuckerman, of course, is spellbound.
The next day he gets a call from an old boyfriend of hers: Richard Kliman, a literary journalist writing Lonoff’s biography, who hints at dark secrets in the dead writer’s past. Zuckerman brushes him off, but Kliman persists. He’s been to see Amy, who’s given him part of the unpublished novel Lonoff had worked on during the last years of his life. The secret turns out to be incest; while a teenager, Lonoff slept with his sister. Now Zuckerman goes to see Amy, who, after having been Lonoff’s companion during those last five years (they really did run away together after The Ghost Writer), has been living with his memory, as with a husband of flesh and blood, ever since. Amy confirms the incest story. Zuckerman refuses to believe it. The fate of these intersecting obsessions—Zuckerman’s with Jamie, Kliman’s with Lonoff, Kliman’s with Jamie, Zuckerman’s with Lonoff, Amy’s with Lonoff—form the substance of the plot.
Exit Ghost is not one of Roth’s better works. Its many reflections on the humiliations of senescence sound like outtakes from last year’s Everyman. Zuckerman blows off sexual steam by concocting imaginary dialogues that rewrite his encounters with Jamie in more gratifying terms, and these playlets, dispersed throughout the novel, all too plainly recycle the method of Deception, a minor work from a couple of decades ago that is likewise composed exclusively of dialogue.
The novel also feels like something of a sketch, a characteristic it shares with The Prague Orgy, the fourth Zuckerman narrative—and perhaps, for similar reasons. Both Exit Ghostand The Prague Orgy tell of forays into erogenous zones where Zuckerman doesn’t belong and from which he is prematurely ejected: Cold War Prague, for the Westerner; young New York, for the flaccid old recluse. Of his own most recently completed manuscript, Zuckerman tells us that his fading mental powers never allowed him to get it into satisfactory shape, and that he can now either bury it, as Hemingway would have done, or send it out “to yield whatever satisfactions it could,” as was Faulkner’s practice. Roth here seems to take the Faulknerian route, as he has throughout his prolific but uneven career.
Exit Ghost is a disappointing conclusion to the Zuckerman cycle, though again, in a sense, fittingly so. Zuckerman certainly isn’t going out with a bang, so he might as well go out with a whimper. That is, if he’s really going out at all. Roth may have said as much himself, and mean it, but D. H. Lawrence taught us to trust the tale, not the teller of the tale, and although the novel makes the finalizing gesture of circling back to The Ghost Writer, there’s no definitive evidence that Zuckerman is through. He doesn’t die in the story (he can’t, since he’s telling it), and while he does say that the novel he’s writing—which we’re meant to understand as coextensive with the one we’re reading—is going to be his last, a book by Zuckerman is not the same thing as a Zuckerman book.
The second two-Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson-were about him but not by him. What’s more, there was no reason to believe, once the initial trilogy was complete, that Roth would bring him back again. But he did, in The Prague Orgy, as a lens for exploring the East European dissident world with which Roth himself had begun to make contact. And then he did again, in The Counterlife, as the fulcrum of an exquisitely balanced set of metafictional variations. And then he did once more, after a lapse of 11 years and five other works, as the sounding board for a trio of interlocutors, the protagonists of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Besides, John Updike wasn’t finished with Rabbit Angstrom even after he had killed him off. The ghost-writer may exit in the new novel, but the thing about ghosts is that they keep coming back.
THERE IS much talk in Exit Ghost of literary specters—not only Hemingway and Faulkner, but Hawthorne and Conrad, Hardy and Keats, and a good number of others besides. Its title, however, seems to come from Hamlet (there are other Shakespeare plays that include the same stage direction), and it is that work, I think, that is the novel’s true intertext. A book of playlets, in which Zuckerman gets pulled back into the “drama” of “he and she,” the novel is also divided, like a Shakespeare play, into five parts. It is a book not only about haunting, but also about fathers and sons, and incest, and bad dreams. Amy is haunted by Lonoff; Zuckerman is haunted by the ghost of his youth; the novel itself is haunted by The Ghost Writer. Amy even speaks of taking dictation from her dead companion—another kind of ghostwriting. A ghost, says The Counterlife, “is the person you talk to.”
But Zuckerman is also haunted by Lonoff, the spiritual father he adopted those many years ago. Having been chased out of New York by death threats more personal than those that spook Jamie in the post-9/11 world, Zuckerman, as we learn, chose his Berkshire retreat for its proximity (and similarity) to Lonoff’s. And just as Zuckerman latched onto Lonoff, he has had to cope with his own string of self-appointed sons: Alvin Pepler in Zuckerman Unbound, Jimmy Lustig in The Counterlife, and now, Richard Kliman. For the lifelong shikse-lover, a trio of twitchy, threatening Jewish boys, thrusting upon him the symbols of their fledgling manhood: Pepler’s jism, Jimmy’s pistol, Kliman’s manuscript. But did Zuckerman look any different to Lonoff? At least Kliman (whose name looks like “Kill-man”), the most formidable of the three, understands the situation. “Look,” he says, “old men hate young men. That goes without saying.”
The issue between them, of course—as it is in Hamlet—is sexual rivalry. Ever since Portnoy lay down on Dr. Spievogel’s couch, Roth’s work has invited Freudian readings (and often supplied them itself). In The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman contended with Lonoff for Amy’s charms. Now he jousts with Kliman for Jamie’s. The joke on both men is that she’s faithful to Billy, her “chubby,” “swaddled” husband with the childish name.
Zuckerman, with his incontinence and his incontinence pads, his “spigot of wrinkled flesh,” has also become something of a child again. Brother-sister incest may or may not be the secret of Lonoff’s lifelong repression, but another kind of incest lies closer to the novel’s heart. Its final chapter, or act, opens with Zuckerman’s recollection of “a very small dream, airy with childish hopefulness”: “Ma, can you do me a favor?” he asked his mother on the phone. “Can we have incest?” It is the novel’s most piercing moment, its secret emotional center, but it ends with a fall from Oedipal fulfillment back into the grim reality of Oedipal conflict. Zuckerman is awakened by a ringing phone, with the suggestion that the sound itself had inspired the dream, but it is not his mother calling—she has long been a ghost—it is Kliman.
For the struggle between men is not only over the body of the mother, but also over that of the father—or at least, over his literary remains. Zuckerman struggles with Kliman over Lonoff’s story, just as he had struggled in The Ghost Writer over Amy’s by reimagining her as Anne Frank, a living ghost. By revealing Lonoff’s secret, Zuckerman believes, Kliman would be desecrating his hero’s memory, and Zuckerman’s denunciations make him sound like the priggish Judge Wapter, the self-righteous scold of The Ghost Writer, protecting the Jews from Zuckerman himself. But when Kliman thrusts a copy of Lonoff’s long-lost manuscript at Zuckerman’s chest, Zuckerman refuses at first to take it, then dumps it, unread, into the trash—a less-than-ceremonious burial. What is he so afraid of? That his hero has feet of clay or that the sainted and safely forgotten short-story writer might suddenly be resurrected as a rival? The fight here is over literature itself, as it was once over Amy Bellette—whose name looks, and sounds, like “belles-lettres.”
GHOST, DOUBLES, the family romance, the madness of art—these ingredients have been part of the Zuckerman novels from the first. But there is something new here, an element of the uncanny that turns the novel into a ghost story in a different sense. What are the chances that the very couple whose ad Zuckerman answers would have a friend who’s writing Lonoff’s biography ? Or that Zuckerman would run into Amy at all, let alone that very same week?
There’s more. Zuckerman, it turns out, had met Kliman and Jamie before, and remembered being attracted to her, when he’d come to Harvard a decade earlier to give a reading. At the beginning of the novel, Zuckerman tells us that an officious neighbor had given him two orange kittens to keep him company, but that they’d been so distracting that he got rid of them. This would be fine as a foreshadowing of the novel’s larger story of how Zuckerman lets himself get pulled out of his artistic hermitage and back into the tumult of life. It would even be fine, if a bit obvious, if it turned out that Jamie had two cats of her own. But she has two cats that look exactly like Zuckerman’s kittens grown into adulthood. They come across as familiar spirits (shades of Macbeth, another “Exit ghost” play), and Zuckerman finds the sight of them astonishing.
The novel seems to be wandering about in a dream. It is a dream of regeneration, the resurrection of the flesh—in medicine, then in city life, then in romance. But as is the way of dreams, things keep missing their mark. Zuckerman comes to New York to treat his incontinence, but it is really his impotence he wants to cure. The treatment, an injection of collagen at the neck of the bladder, also fails to hit its target. Zuckerman sets up Kliman as his rival for Jamie, but his real rival is Billy. He and Kliman end up of fighting over Amy instead. Amy, Jamie: another doubling, another miss.
Zuckerman writes Billy and Jamie’s number on the same piece of paper on which he had earlier written, for no discernible reason, “Amy Bellette.” Later, he will use the same scrap to jot down titles for the book we are now reading; the one he ruefully settles on is The Man in Diapers. It is indeed not Jamie, but Amy who is Zuckerman’s true partner. The only resurrection he experiences is the return of the specters of his youth.
Numinous doublings, uncanny misdirections: at times it almost seems in Exit Ghost as if there were a Nabokov novel inside signaling to get out—maybe one that looks like Kliman’s description of Lonoff’s manuscript: “Lolita without Quilty and the stupid jokes.” But the sad fact is that Zuckerman’s confusions are not finally about a dream state, but about a state of mental decline.
As the novel progresses, Roth makes us increasingly aware of the precarious condition of Zuckerman’s memory: things he may have forgotten saying, appointments he may have forgotten making. We never know for sure, since we only have Zuckerman’s word to go on. Ultimately, this sense of unreliability comes to taint the very fabric of the narrative. What if we can’t trust anything Zuckerman writes? Roth doesn’t quite push it that far, but he does have Zuckerman confess to “being unable, after only a few minutes, to remember much of the previous page” as he writes.
The problem is compounded by the running fantasy of the “He and She” dialogues. After rivaling reality in Zuckerman’s mind throughout the novel, they finally begin to conquer it altogether. In their last conversation, Zuckerman tells us, Jamie had defended herself against his accusation that she and Kliman are having an affair. But Zuckerman has voiced that suspicion only in the dialogues. “You’ve imagined a woman who isn’t me,” she pleads, but she can’t know that. Zuckerman has imagined the statement itself, and who knows what else.
Among Jamie’s final words are these: “That’s a hallucination. It all is.” That “all” is a stain that has the potential to spread back and engulf everything that’s happened in the novel since Zuckerman, browsing the personals (all those erotic possibilities), had stumbled upon the persons of Billy and Jamie and Richard Kliman. Reality is not fantasy, and fiction is neither. When a writer can no longer keep them straight, it is indeed time to exit.
William Deresiewicz reviews books for a variety of publications.