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Book Review: Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

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Over the course of three decades and nine books, Philip Roth has relied upon his most famous character, novelist and alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, to give impetus and vitality to a series of memorable stories. Now in his latest work, Exit Ghost, Roth offers what he claims will be the final chapter in the Zuckerman saga. In the process, he revisits many of the same characters and themes that figured in his first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer, from 1979.

Most authors might have given up on Zuckerman a decade ago. He was sixty years old at the time, and living in a remote cabin, isolated from friends, family and even the daily news. As a result of prostate cancer, he was impotent and incontinent, forced to wear a diaper. No producer would build a film or TV series around such an unpromising protagonist, whose situation makes him distinctly unsuited for heroism, romance or almost anything else, for that matter.

Yet Roth defied these limitations, and in American Pastoral and The Human Stain, crafted two of the finest novels of recent times. In those works, we encounter Roth at his best, probing psyches under stress, as they navigate through moral dilemmas and the collapse of personal relationships, biographies intertwined with the tumult of contemporary historical events. But to achieve these grand effects, Roth pushed Zuckerman to the background of the stories. He was narrator, but not the main character, and his debilitated condition almost enhanced his status as the disinterested onlooker.

Now in Exit Ghost, Roth puts Zuckerman back on center stage. In a trip to New York to undergo an experimental treatment to alleviate his incontinence, the aging author finds himself entangled in a series of unexpected dramas that test his fortitude and re-ignite the passions of his younger days. A chance encounter with Amy Bellette (a character who also figures in The Ghost Writer) is dismaying, as he finds the young lady who had charmed him decades before is now an old woman suffering from terminal cancer. An arrogant young scholar who is writing a scandalous biography of Bellette’s former companion E. I. Lonoff, latches on to Zuckerman as a potential source, taking advantage of the older author’s memory lapses and weakened condition to manipulate him.

Against this backdrop, Zuckerman meets and becomes infatuated with a young woman and aspiring writer, Jamie Logan. This is an unpromising affair from almost any angle. Logan is shallow and self-centered, married and four decades younger than Zuckerman, and he is incapable of consummating any relationship. Yet Zuckerman cannot resist the temptation to pursue Logan, although he tries, as best he can, to sublimate his drives into the fantasy of a play he writes with the two of them as characters.

The title Exit Ghost is also a stage direction from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and in honor of that drama, Roth offers us this anguished “play within a play” which enacts the courtship of the wounded Zuckerman and the haughty Logan. In these imaginary encounters, Roth explores the bitterness and despair of his alter ego as all his dreams of a revitalized life in New York are exposed as baseless illusions.

The brutal honesty of Exit Ghost makes for compelling reading. But Roth’s writing here often falls short of his best work. When he offers the reader a lengthy passage comparing Zuckerman’s return to New York to Rip Van Winkle waking from his sleep, one is surprised to see one of our finest living authors relying on such a tired simile, worthy of a high school creative writing student. Other passages also fail to ring true. When Zuckerman launches into an angry rant on Lonoff’s biographer, the illusion of fiction is destroyed – the reader sees this diatribe as Roth settling scores with his current and future chroniclers.

As with his previous Zuckerman books, Roth tries to incorporate current events into his narrative. In this instance, he has Zuckerman’s trip to New York coincide with the culmination of the election battle between Bush and Kerry for control of the White House, and he also tries to draw on the aftermath of 9-11 during the course of the story. But Roth does not integrate these successfully into his book – not the way he brought the Vietnam protests into the heart of American Pastoral, for example. Indeed, some of the best written passages in Exit Ghost (most notably a long section on the life and death of George Plimpton) play no role in moving ahead the story, and thus impart a peculiar, static quality to the narrative.

This is an unfortunate way for Nathan Zuckerman to leave the stage. He is one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction, and has inspired several brilliant novels. But readers wanting to experience the magic of this famous protagonist are advised to start back at the beginning with The Ghost Writer, rather than with this uneven volume.

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