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Book Review: The Humbling by Philip Roth

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Philip Roth continues his recent practice of delivering a new short novel every year. The tone of these works has been dark and foreboding, and they seem to be getting more so with each book. Roth, the great explorer of taboo subjects in his early career, now fixates on illness, decline and death — forcing us to ask whether this is a new phase for the author, or just his bold assault on the ultimate (in more ways than one) taboo.

Instead of Goodbye, Columbus or Portnoy’s Complaint we now get the portrait of the artist as an old has-been. We still have the familiar Roth obsession with sex, but his characters in The Humbling fantasize even more about killing themselves. At one point Roth places his hero amidst of the patients of a psychiatric hospital where the most popular subject of conversation is suicide, which is addressed in both practical and theoretical terms. Welcome to the late Roth, where hanky-panky is less exciting than hara-kiri.

You might think that it would be hard to get more dispiriting than Roth’s Everyman (2006), which opens with its hero already in a coffin, or Indignation (2008) which starts out with its protagonist having suffered a fatal combat wound in Korea. But you would be wrong. At least these characters had some animating spirit before the Grim Reaper intervened, unlike Simon Axler, the aging actor at the center of Roth’s latest fiction The Humbling.

Axler has lost his talent…and his will to live. He was once a nonpareil actor, but his skills have apparently disappeared. The novel opens shortly after Axler’s disastrous appearance as Macbeth at the Kennedy Center. His agent implores him to return to the stage, but Axler feels that his case his hopeless. “Something fundamental has vanished,” he confesses,. “Maybe it had to. Things go.”

Roth is masterful in presenting his protagonist’s obsession with suicide, which the failed actor conceptualizes via scenes drawn from great dramas. “Sitting there amid his books, he tried to remember plays in which there is a character who commits suicide,” Roth writes. “Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Julie in Miss Julie, Phaedra in Hippolytus, Jocasta in Oedipus the King, almost everyone in Antigone, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, Don Parritt in The Iceman Cometh, Simon Stimson in Our Town, Ophelia in Hamlet…” By the time Axler has finished this rumination, which continues for another full page, he is half-convinced that suicide is not a sin or a sign of weakness, but just one final starring role in a theatrical life.

After 26 days of institutionalization, Axler is ready to return to the world. His suicidal impulses have abated, but he stills feels incapable of resuming his stage career. He retires to his home where, abandoned by his wife, his daily routine is “Walk. Sleep. Stare into space. Try to read. Try to forget myself for at least one minute of each hour.” Roth has made a speciality of such recluses over the years and one of the tell-tale signs of his fictions is his persistence in forcing excitement into the lives of the secluded—invariably in the form of surprising developments from unexpected quarters.

In Axler’s case, the titillation arrives at his door in the person of Pegeen Mike Stapleford, a young lady whose parents once shared the stage with the actor. Axler had first seen Pegeen when she had been a baby nursing at her mother’s breast. Now she is 40 years old and seeks out Axler, who is 65. Pegeen is recovering from a broken relationship with a woman in Montana. On the rebound, she decides to try a straight partner, and falls into an affair with a man old enough to be her father.

The second half of The Humbling often seems like a graft from a different book. The despondent Axler we got to know in the opening pages is replaced by a vibrant man hatching elaborate plans. At first his goals are modest ones — changing the wardrobe and accessories of the new woman in his life — but his ambitions soon escalate to grand life-transforming schemes. This is Roth’s “past recaptured,” but while Proust achieved it via memory, our hero here wants to regain his lost vitality in the flesh.

Has Simon Axler been granted a second wind, a new lease on a happy productive life? Or is he simply setting himself up for an even grander fall? Once again, the details of the actor’s life seem to echo the themes of the great stage dramas. But is this one destined to be a romance or a tragedy?

Roth wraps up his story quickly but convincingly. The Humbling is a taut and provocative novel, the best of Roth’s recent efforts. But already the author’s publisher has announced the next novel in this writer’s annual cycle — Nemesis, scheduled for 2010. I’m looking forward to it, but if Roth’s books get any grimmer, the bookstores may need to move them to the horror section.

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About Ted Gioia