Which is where things get especially harrowing, because though he's lived an essentially healthy life till the age of 65, afterwards "his health began giving way and his body seemed threatened all the time . . . eluding death seemed to have become the central mystery of his life." Every year there's another hospital stay, and what's worse, his friends and acquaintances start declining and dying too. Phoebe has a stroke. Millicent Kramer, a sweet and talented student in one of his art classes, kills herself rather than endure any more of her excruciating back pains. His colleague Ezra Pollack succumbs to cancer, and another workmate, Brad Karr, is spared a suicidal depression only with the help of massive dosages of drugs. And as the protagonist endures year after year of bodily decline, he grows so ashamed and depressed that he ceases contact with his loving brother, largely because he's angry at the injustice and indignity of the fact that he's going down while his brother, older and richer, is still glowing with health. The relentlessness of the decline is as stark as in Tolstoy, and all relayed in prose that's relatively unadorned with metaphor but crystalline in its lucidity.
"Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre," Roth writes. But before the massacre is complete, the protagonist, knowing he's going in for still one more operation that he might not come out of, visits the dilapidated cemetery where his parents' bones lie beneath the soil, where he has an almost Hamlet-like revelation: "Once he was with those bones, he could not leave them . . . The bones were the only solace there was to one who put no stock in an afterlife . . . This was what was true, this intensity of connection with those bones."
A secular vision of meaning doesn't get much starker than this—not love, not legacy, not even the consolations of memory, but a connection that's as hard and dry as dead bones. What is redemptory for Roth, of course, is his art. "There's no remaking reality," the protagonist likes to say. No, there's not. But there is the remaking of art, and just as the protagonist thanks a gravedigger at novel's end for explaining his profession in language that is "clear," "concrete," "careful" and "considerate," these are the values of Roth's art, the qualities of the mirror he holds up to life so that his readers can meditate—suffering in solidarity—on the perplexities of death.