Zuckerman is back. Yes, Philip Roth has revived clever, lusty, neurotic old Nathan Zuckerman, the erstwhile hero of eight previous Roth novels who is once again stirring up all sorts of mischief.
In New York, after an 11-year hiatus from the city, Zuckerman stumbles into the lives of Billy Davidoff and Jamie Logan. Immediately infatuated with Jamie, Zuckerman (now old and sexually demobilized) immediately decides to stay in New York and cannot help but try and woo her.
Meanwhile, an ambitious young writer tries to bully Zuckerman into helping him compile the biography of E.I. Lonoff, Zuckerman's first and formative mentor. Though outraged by the upstart, the stand-off leads Zuckerman to Lonoff's former lover, Amy Bellete, a character through whom Roth is able to toy with the prickly topics of memory, intimacy, youth, writing and reading.
More than one reviewer has noted that it is almost superfluous to dissect yet another stroke of Rothian brilliance. What's left to say? Roth is still a supreme craftsman and his handiwork is ever-present in Exit Ghost.
Since he first appeared on the page, Zuckerman has changed little, though he has aged and lived in self-imposed isolation for 11 years. The narrative, similar to the entire Roth-penned backlist, is laced with casual erudition that flaunts not only the sharp mind of the protagonist, but the breathtaking intellect of his creator. So, is there anything new, worth examination, comment?
Indeed! Most notably, Zuckerman is not just older, he is now forgetful, insecure, tortured by incontinence caused by prostate surgery and impotent. It is fascinating to encounter this defanged hero.
Once so smug and cavalier, Zuckerman's physical and mental weaknesses make him seem considerably more sympathetic. When Amy fails to honor a dinner date, instead of his characteristic petulance, Zuckerman attributes the mix-up to his faulty memory.
In fact, it is Amy who has made the error, but the writer's youthful vim and swagger are long gone and battered confidence has left him vulnerable to self-doubt.
Zuckerman also suffers extreme anguish as a result of his leaky bladder.
Once physically robust and virile, he no longer has the courage to venture into a public pool, mortified by the possibility that his bladder might "voluntarily begin emptying itself," embarrassing himself and offending others.
Sexually, however, Zuckerman is Zuckerman. Sexual dysfunction does not prevent him from succumbing to the lust, yearning and predatory behavior that have always made him both repugnant and intriguing. In the company of beautiful, young Jamie Logan, the famous author cannot resist the urge to implement a sexual offensive though he knows full well that he is incapable of seeing his mission through to its completion.
Exit Ghost is also awash in wonderful cultural commentary. This is no truer than when Zuckerman observes the ubiquitousness of cell phones. "What surprised me most my first few days walking around the city?... the cell phones... I had to wonder what that had previously had held them up had collapsed in people to make incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one's animal senses and thinking myriad thoughts that the activities of the city inspire."
Who but Roth could be so incisively scathing about the 21st century's telecommunications plague without his character sounding whiny or anachronistic?
Moreover, how thoroughly amusing when even libidinous Zuckerman is struck by the near total erosion of modesty in mainstream culture: "I knew from my trips down to Athena how much of themselves college girls now exposed with neither shame nor fear, but the phenomenon didn't stun me until I got to the city, where the numbers were vastly multiplied and the age range expanded...."
Yet, it is the subplot involving Lonoff's legacy that echoes Roth's most penetrating and recurrent battle cry: the imperative to treat fiction as fiction, with integrity, divorced from the author's biography.
In a never-sent letter to the editor, Amy articulates the critical posture that Roth has assumed ever since Neil Klugman courted Brenda Patimkin. "There was a time when intelligent people used literature to think. That time is coming to an end," opines Amy.
"Your cultural journalism is tabloid gossip disguised as an interest in 'the arts,' and everything it touches is contracted into what it is not... If you told a cultural journalist, 'Look inward at the story only,' he wouldn't have a thing to say."
Despite Amy's comments, journalists do, on occasion, look inward at the story and considerable ink is still dedicated to the ideas in literature. In the Oprah book club age, literature might not be, as Amy says, "a serious influence on how life is perceived."
Nevertheless, as long as Roth continues to give us characters as complicated, interesting, both amiable and repugnant as Nathan Zuckerman, literature will continue to be more than just an excuse for the media to launch new celebrity writers and unearth the scandalous deeds of authors who despise nothing more than the culture of tabloid celebrity.