Friday 9 November 2007

Gone for good

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

In The Ghost Writer, the first novel to feature Nathan Zuckerman, the young writer travelled from New York to the Berkshires to visit his hero E.I.Lonoff. In Exit Ghost, which is probably the final appearance of Roth's alter ego, the journey is reversed and after 11 years in rural exile Zuckerman returns to the city, 'where the biggest thing of all occurred', on the eve of the presidential election which, we know, will put Bush back in the White House.

I had banished my country, been myself banished from erotic contact with women, and was lost through battle fatigue to the world of love.

He has made the journey, impotent and incontinent after prostate surgery, to undergo a procedure that he hopes will return to him some control over his bladder. It is the latest in the series of mortifications which we have endured with Zuckerman and another stripping away of the vitality and virility which has been such a huge part of him. Face to face with modern life again he surprises himself by responding to a house-swap advert from a young writerly couple looking for solitude, allowing his return to the city. But confronted with ghosts from his past his attempt to re-engage with the world is doomed to be a futile gesture.

Along with the surprise of making impulsive decisions comes the surprising reawakening of his sexual self. Jamie the young female writer exerts 'a huge gravitational pull on the ghost of my desire' but where the mind is willing the body is unable 'I experienced the bitter helplessness of a taunted old man dying to be whole again'. But the problem here is that the mind isn't even that willing anymore. Zuckerman's encounters with Jamie come in the form of imagined dialogues which lack character,insight and any real teeth at all.

He also encounters the woman who played such a thrilling part in the first novel, Amy Bellette, whom Zuckerman re imagined as an Anne Frank who had survived her fate. Now at the age of 75 she is transformed into a crazy looking woman in customised hospital gown with head half shaved and an ugly scar across her scalp, a horrific transformation from the woman who had so charged the young Zuckerman's creativity. Having survived her lover Lonoff she is being hounded (as will Zuckerman) by Kliman, a young writer who wishes to write a biography of Lonoff containing the 'big secret' he had kept from everyone. Zuckerman's battles with this arrogant, pushy reminder of his own youth are the closest we get to fireworks. 'You're dying old man you'll soon be dead! You smell of decay. You smell like death!' he shouts to a urine soaked Zuckerman.

Roth writes very well about what it is like to be a man losing his potency, both physically and mentally but the problem with having such a debilitated hero is that the writing as a whole suffers. Reading the dialogues between Zuckerman and Jamie is like reading a bad play script. Towards the end of the novel there is a section eulogising George Plimpton which comes from nowhere and feels very out of place. Roth is still better than most writers even when not on top form but there isn't much fun to be had reading a writer writing about how hard it has become to write.


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