It is understandable that many Philip Roth admirers have been disappointed by his recent novels. Hanging over them all is Roth’s morbid fixation on death, and not even graceful deaths, but ones of an utterly savage, genuinely tragic kind.
Here is the exuberant writer who gave us “Portnoy’s Complaint,” (1969) about a postwar adolescent brimming with libidinous energy, now coming up with “Indignation,” (2008) where a studious, straight-A student dies before having barely been laid.
Fans of the early Roth novels — ones like “Portnoy” that trafficked so heavily in sex it was even banned in Australia — will not be pleased with “The Humbling,” Roth’s latest novel. The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough sex; it’s that what is there is
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so poorly conceived. Not only is our lead lothario Simon Axler, a 65-year-old suicidal actor who’s just suffered a nervous breakdown; his Juliet is Pegeen Mike Stapleford, a 40-year-old lesbian and the daughter of Axler’s old friends.
The story, written briskly and clocking in at just under 140 well-spaced pages, revolves around Axler’s attempt to resuscitate his career. His resurrection will come through an erection, no less; that is, his love affair with Pegeen. But from the start, Roth drops hints that Pegeen is trouble — she got her job at a university by sleeping with the dean, who later comes back to stalk Axler and Pegeen both.
She all too easily accepts Axler’s gifts — “He bought her necklaces, bracelets, and earrings ... luxurious lingerie to replace the sports bras and the gray briefs .... over the next few months he bought her flattering coats — five of them.” She heeds her parents’ advice as if she were 14, not 40.
But Axler is himself such a wreck that any living thing that comes near his loins may promise salvation. By page nine, we’re told how Axler’s wife Victoria, a former ballerina who Axler stood by even though she lost all talent years ago, bolts to California. This comes in response to Axler’s horrific performances as Prospero and Macbeth at the Kennedy Center, he having “lost his magic” (a nice nod to “The Tempest”).
Axler, terrified and alone, checks into a psychiatric hospital where he befriends such wonders as Sybil Van Buren, whose equanimity turns demonic after she walks in on her husband, a plastic surgeon, sexually abusing their 8-year-old daughter.
After a long absence, Sybil returns in the final chapter victorious, according to the dark logic of this novel. “A man in his forties, a successful plastic surgeon,” Roth describes Axler reading in the paper, “had been shot by his estranged wife. The wife was Sybil Van Buren.”
If I’ve given the impression so far that “The Humbling” is a bust, I don’t mean it entirely. In fact, much of the writing itself is so finely constructed that it’s easy to look past it and go straight for the flaws, found mostly in the plot’s absurdities. Contrary to Roth’s implicit questioning of his own talent (much like other Roth novels, the protagonist seems all too much the author’s double), this new book shows he’s still got plenty of it.
The problem is that when those talents are so self-evident — the pitch-perfect display of internal thoughts, the gallant movement of plot — it’s a pity to see it wasted on such a crackpot story. To be fair, we should expect a bit of outrageousness as part of our bargain with a Roth novel. But when the theme is as weighty as death, self-delusion and the redemptive power of art we are not out of our wits to demand a little less pulp.
And as for those themes, Roth has certainly not shirked us here. There has always been a thickly tragic vein in Roth’s novels, be it in the grand delusions of racial progress in America (see: “The Human Stain”), or the impossibility of assimilation (see: all the Zukerman books, “Operations Shylock,” “The Plot Against America,” “Goodbye, Columbus,” and “Sabbath’s Theater”). So it should come as no surprise that tragedy is the dominant mode in his last few novels.
The heart of the matter in “The Humbling” is whether life is worth living once its raison d’etre has flickered out. The beginning of Axler’s downfall is the loss of his talent. And all that happens to him after that — the wife leaving him; the lover doing so too; the friends stabbing him in the back — are portrayed merely as annoyances, a plot device, really.
Axler’s self-doubt, his “humbling,” is so complete that he cannot even decide if his despair is real. “The worst of it was that he saw through his breakdown the same way he could see through his acting,” Roth writes. “The suffering was excruciating and yet he doubted that it was genuine, which made it even worse.”
What makes Roth such a frustrating, and frustratingly good novelist, is the way he couches resolution in impossibly bleak terms. Axler so thoroughly sees himself as an actor that when he loses his talent he loses all sense of himself; even his thoughts of suicide seem fake. But the logical conclusion of this setup is that if Axler is to be redeemed, he must be able to act again — even on his suicidal thoughts. His depression is less the result of having “lost his magic” as it is having lost his ability to cope with that loss.
Since Roth is America’s great Jewish writer, at least since Bellow, it’s worth asking if Judaism may have helped poor Axler here. Clearly Axler is Jewish, but it is suggestive that not once does he turn to his faith for answers.
Roth, of course, gave his own perspective on faith years ago, when it became clear that the Jewishness of his characters was cultural, not religious. But without any religious convictions to counter the depressive logic in his recent stories, Roth seems poised to go the way of Beckett. Like Godot, God has no real place here, though at least Beckett made the end bearable through humor. Alas, as Roth faces death, he still won’t laugh.