Roth, Waxing

At age 73, Philip Roth is in the midst of what might be the most stunning “late period” by an American writer since Henry James. Major American novelists have notoriously faded early—think of Melville, Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Ellison, Bellow: with a few stray exceptions, none of them produced a great novel past the age of 60. But with Everyman, Roth has written his third great book in a decade (the others are American Pastoral and The Human Stain), going after the most sobering themes of sickness, the deterioration of the body and death with the same relentless energy and fierceness of intelligence with which he went after sex and Jewish guilt in Portnoy's Complaint, the “shrieking contradiction” of identity in the Zuckerman Bound trilogy, or the “sheer sheerness” of comic invention in The Great American Novel. The new novel might be named after a 15th century morality play, but it's really an American version of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, and, side by side, Roth's book doesn't suffer by the comparison.

Like Tolstoy's narrative about a bourgeois forced to face the reality of his impending death in 19th century Russia, Everyman begins with family and friends gathering (in a New Jersey Jewish cemetery in the opening years of this century) to mourn a man's death, and then goes back to narrate his life so that we can understand the complex emotions of the survivors: “Of course, as when anyone dies, though many were grief-stricken, others remained unperturbed, or found themselves relieved, or, for reasons good or bad, were genuinely pleased.” The presiding difference from Tolstoy, however—the defining swerve from that book—is that while Ivan Ilych, at death's door, experiences a transcendent moment of what is essentially Christian illumination, Everyman refuses to entertain transcendence at all: “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions meaningless, childish, couldn't stand the complete unadultness—the baby talk and the righteousness of the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There are only bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.”

This isn't just the unnamed protagonist talking; this is clearly Roth, and it's a decisive turn in the book. “Should he ever write an autobiography,” the protagonist thinks, “he'd call it The Life and Death of a Male Body,” and that's essentially what we get in Everyman: we get life, we get lust, we get sickness and decline, and we get death. Plain, hard, simple. Spiritual longing, transcendent answers? They're for suckers. Wherever you may happen to stand on these issues, though, it's impossible not to admire Roth's bravery in contemplating death with such uncompromising focus.

The protagonist is in many ways recognizably Rothian: he's born in 1933; he's raised in New Jersey, with a father, mother and a brother who are variations on previous fictional incarnations of Roth's family; he undergoes an erotic career that's as urgent and implacable as it is ruinous; in his 60s he goes under the knife for a quintuple bypass operation; and after multiple marriages, he lives out his last years divorced and alone—all these are staples of Roth's fiction. But Roth's universalized him as well: our Everyman is a successful advertising executive, has three children (Roth has none), and, aside from his dilettantish attempt to become a painter late in life, can't entertain the creation of art as an answer to the meaning of his life.

In fact, as the narrative progresses, he can't entertain anything as an enduring answer to the significance of a life that ends with a mere physical death. The questioning begins early though, with the protagonist going in for a hernia operation as a boy: significantly enough, while experiencing his first visceral death fear as the ether mask is laid over his face, he fantasizes that the surgeon says to him, “Now I'm going to turn you into a girl.” Even as a boy, he's on to himself: already he conflates his fear of death with the loss of sexual potency, and so begins his project—one that will dominate his life—to use lust as a way to evade the gradual deterioration of the body.

In his 20s, he does what everyone did in the '50s, which is marry and have children, but though “he had never thought of himself as anything more than an average human being . . . marriage became his prison cell . . . and he began to tunnel his way out.” He tunnels his way out via adultery, and then tunnels back into another marriage, this time with a woman named Phoebe who is sensible, understanding, supportive, loving, and who bears him a child named Nancy who he continually describes as a miracle of love to him. But he betrays her too, this time inexplicably—especially to himself—with a model 26 years younger than himself. Littered now with a past that includes two angry ex-wives, two sons he's abandoned and are thus “the source of his deepest guilt,” and a daughter who, no matter how understanding, can't part with “the undying fantasy of a parental reconciliation that she has spent half of her life hoping for,” he marries, stupidly, the model, who, it's clear to everyone but him, is little more than a vessel for his lust. When he realizes, he divorces her too and lives out his remaining years alone.

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.


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