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Peer Review: Enter Sophist

By (November 1, 2007) No Comment

Exit Ghost

By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 2007

In this regular feature we review the reviewers who review new books

If there were any writer who didn’t need a publicity gimmick to attract the magpie eyes of book critics it would be Philip Roth, but extra attention is precisely what Roth has earned with the announcement that his new novel Exit Ghost will be the last to feature the character Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman has appeared in nine novels since he starred in The Ghost Writer in 1979, which is more than was achieved by either Rabbit Angstrom or Hannibal Lecter (though he would have some ways to go before equaling the perdurably libidinous Harry Paget Flashman).

Nine books (or, as Wyatt Mason suggests, twelve if you include those books in which Zuckerman had a bit part; or, as Adam Kirsch points out, six if you exclude the American Trilogy that Zuckerman simply narrates), many of which are in the stately process of republication under the imprimatur of the Library of America. Of the fourteen reviews considered here nearly half make reverent mention of the Library of America, making it clear that Roth’s previous work, now engraved as classics by that prestigious publishing house, exert a formidable sway in the assessments of Exit Ghost. In the majority of these reviews it’s not a book being considered but a career, a fact that gives the pieces a notably scholastic bent.  

And Peer Review being the spectator sport that it is, we’ll begin with the featherweight of the scholarly forum, The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman. Hoberman makes many of the same points that we’ll find in other reviews, but he does so in a prose style that’s meant to be edgy and urban and which instead comes off as illiterate. The trouble starts as early as the first two sentences of his review:

Exit Ghost is the start, or possibly the end, of Philip Roth’s long goodbye. It identifies itself as the last of the Zuckerman novels, title and action rhyming The Ghost Writer, which…introduced the novelist’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman….

It’s a catchy opener, but basically a meaningless one since anyone paying even minimal attention knows that Roth began his goodbyes years ago (in such books as Everyman in 2006 or The Dying Animal in 2001, although Mason suggests that Roth began his preoccupation with illness and death with Patrimony in 1991), and in any case, by even suggesting that Exit Ghost may be the end of a “long goodbye,” Hoberman invalidates the first half of his sentence. And if Hoberman thinks the title Exit Ghost “rhymes” The Ghost Writer (so much hipper than “rhymes with”), I tremble to see his poetry.

Further along, considering the bleakness of Roth’s characters, he writes, “Amy [Bellette] resembles a Samuel Beckett character; Zuckerman is one”—by which Hoberman can only mean that Zuckerman resembles a Samuel Beckett character. The misbegotten review concludes with two more lines that rely on the reader not looking too closely (and sharing a high schooler’s contempt for grammar):

As iterated by Exit Ghost and reiterated by the Library of America, Roth has become his own oeuvre. In that context, this book is a triumph.

So Roth is iterated by Exit Ghost? And don’t bother trying to figure out what context Hoberman means. (The line he was searching for, incidentally, was “Roth has become his own corpus,” but that pun was anticipated by Roth himself in the 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson.)

Happily, elucidation comes from the Times Literary Supplement in Bharat Tandon’s first-rate piece (given the perfectly nerdy title, “Philip Roth and the Consolations of Denouement”), the best straight-ahead review yet published on Exit Ghost. Tandon meets the challenge of parsing Roth’s innumerable references to previous novels while never losing himself in the insular meta-world of “texts” and “contexts.” He combines an impeccable scholarly apparatus with a graceful readability, as, for instance, when he describes the connections in Exit Ghost to earlier Zuckerman novels:

as its title suggests, Exit Ghost lives in a strongly allusive relationship with the Zuckerman Bound sequence, particularly The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound—indeed, no Roth novel since The Prague Orgy (1985) has leant so heavily on earlier works, by Roth and his predecessors. While Zuckerman revisits the physical scenes of his old New York life, Roth’s narrative replays scenes from earlier novels….

Tandon then offers praise of these allusive properties that is pointed and specific rather than vaguely contextual:

In the hands of a lesser writer, this might work simply as creative recycling; but, as befits a novel about generations and successions, Exit Ghost makes more searching use of the numerous squarings-up of old and new versions that take place as the plot unfolds.

Many of the strengths of Tandon’s piece are also on evidence in James Wood’s review in The New Yorker (his first here following the multiyear incentived contract Scott Boras negotiated on his behalf). Wood navigates the difficult terrain of Roth’s 24-book canon by drawing a sharp contrast between early and “Late Roth,” and then homes in on the style and matter of the more valedictory work, of which he thinks Exit Ghost is a successful example. But for all its demonstrative intelligence and agreeable prose, the review is enervated by the unfortunate air Wood frequently exudes, that of a fussy aesthete who only approves of boring things. This is surely not a fair characterization, yet it is often the case that his disparagement makes books seem interesting and his praise makes them seem dull.

For example, here he examines Roth’s prose style, which he says is “simpler, more urgent, more vocal” than that of Roth’s early books:

An old retiree in Florida, in Sabbath’s Theater, for instance, is referred to by the unassuming phrase “a suntanned little endurer with steel-gray hair” and we can see this Floridian in all his wrinkled longevity. Similarly, in Exit Ghost, Zuckerman reflects that he cannot defeat a much younger man, a literary journalist named Richard Kliman, who is “savage with health and armed to the teeth with time.” It is wonderful to take the cliché “armed to the teeth” and combine it with the abstract word “time,” producing a hovering suggestion of a second cliché, this one having to do with old age being “long in the tooth.”

This is hawk-eyed analysis and there’s no question that Wood’s enthusiasm is genuine—it’s just that his enthusiasm is not going to transfer to the reader. The description of the Floridian is decidedly generic (that’s why we can see him so easily: it’s a stock image), and it’s hard to construe any wonder in a variation on a cliché, especially if the variation only calls to mind a second cliché. Wood’s rhapsodies are rare and so demand attention when they appear, but they almost never make you want to read the book.

Still, he makes the useful (if pedantically phrased) point that “Exit Ghost is conducting an intertextual conversation with The Ghost Writer, and both novels concern not one but two invented writers (Zuckerman and E.I. Lonoff).” This “conversation” is at the heart of Adam Kirsch’s confident review in The New York Sun. Kirsch writes:

Zuckerman, we learn, has spent the last decade doing absolutely nothing but writing—he doesn’t read the newspapers, see friends, visit New York, or even accept the kittens a kindly neighbor tries to give him. This utter isolation, too, is a kind of heroism, as he acknowledges: “I stayed away because over the years I conquered a way of life that I (and not just I) would have though impossible, and there’s pride in that.” In other words, as longtime readers of Mr. Roth will recognize, Zuckerman has managed to become another E.I. Lonoff, the hermit-like writer whom he visited in the very first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer.

In this one paragraph Kirsch cuts through the tangle of competing interpretive theories and establishes a concrete connection between the first and last Zuckerman vehicles; he then uses that connection as the linchpin to understanding—and even enjoying—the cranky, self-absorbed ruminations of a geriatric author. Kirsch and Wood are in many ways similar writers: assured, fluent, and somewhat colorlessly forensic. Although a certain schoolmarmish predictability often attends their reviews, the reader is at least never at a loss from their judgments.

This is certainly not the case with many of the reviewers of Exit Ghost, who are either intimidated into wishy-washy platitudes by the complications of Roth’s prolific career, or else disappear down an academic rabbit hole and cast no verdict at all. In the Telegraph, Kasia Boddy mentions “banal” and “desultory” elements of the novel, but ends by applauding Roth’s legacy. In The Washington Post, Michael Dirda tries to have it both ways by writing, “As a portrait of the artist as an old man, Exit Ghost delivers pages of great, sad power. But as a work of art it feels unfocused….” And even Michiko Kakutani, in another wooden, pointless piece in The New York Times, is ambivalent, merely saying that the book is better than the last few Roth wrote.

But the most indecisive—and therefore evasive—review belongs to Clive James in The New York Times Book Review, which forgets a half-dozen times throughout its cheerful ramble that it’s supposed to be talking about a book. James is by nature digressive—that’s what makes him so convivial—but the extent of the discursions here speak to an inability to get a grasp of his subject matter. He talks about Roth’s rumored conquests of Australian movie stars, his legendary appeal to “upmarket women” (with a curious mention of the Richard Gere-gerbil slander), the ascendancy of American novelists, and Gore Vidal’s conspiracy theories concerning Pearl Harbor, all in order to say that Roth is great at “self-exploration.” And what about Exit Ghost?

Great title. The book of a great writer. A great book? Maybe it’s just another piece of a puzzle.

  Well, terrific. At least we know he likes the title. In light of such hedging it’s a relief to turn to two reviews that pan Exit Ghost, if only because they do so unequivocally. According to Wood and Kirsch, The Ghost Writer is a necessary pendant to Exit Ghost, but Peter Kemp, writing with skilled succinctness in The London Times, finds nothing invigorating about the interplay, calling Exit Ghost “torpid” and saying that its narrative is “not much more than a sprawl of slack contrivance.”

Christopher Hitchens’ pillory in The Atlantic is a doubly liberating experience for the reader weary of traveling through the bowels of Roth’s back-catalog. Hitchens clearly hasn’t read The Ghost Writer; moreover, implicit in his review is the fact that he hasn’t even read all of Exit Ghost. Such a position allows him to attack with customary blotto zest what he sees as Roth’s egotism (what James calls “self-exploration”), unfocused, unfinished writing (what Wyatt Mason calls a “mirror” of a “disordered mind”), and lazy recycling (what, as we’ve seen, Tandon thinks is “searching” and “allusive”). Hitchens’ piece is a priceless example of highly literate barstool vitriol, and his drunken acerbity is never more hilarious than in the review’s final paragraph, which attacks Roth’s creepy fixation on violent and misogynistic oral sex:

When Raymond Chandler felt things going limp in a story, he would have the door open and then it would be: Enter a man carrying a gun. When Roth is in the same fix, we know that some luckless goy chick is about to get it in the face. Exit reader.

(The chauvinism, against which Hitchens seems to be the surprising lone critic, is perhaps underscored by the dearth of females asked to review Exit Ghost; women wrote only two of the reviews found for this piece.)

It ultimately becomes clear from all these reviews that one’s appreciation for Exit Ghost tends to rise or drop in direct proportion to one’s familiarity with Roth’s earlier novels. This is why, then, the most sensitive and heartfelt article comes from Harpers’s Wyatt Mason, who appears not only to know the sum of Roth’s work from cover to cover, but to love a great deal of it. Mason’s deeply involved piece is billed as a review of both Exit Ghost and the Library of America reissue, and while its arguments for the former are a little unpersuasive, it is required reading for anyone interested in learning about “Late Roth.”

Specifically, Mason discusses the subject of illness in fiction, a theme he thinks Roth has been “circling hungrily” since the 1991 memoir Patrimony, about his father’s death from a brain tumor. Mason proceeds to document the instances of disease in each of Roth’s books since that time. The documentation (although that word belies the lovely, unassuming tone Mason achieves) reveals a novelist increasingly absorbed with aging, failing powers, and death. Nathan Zuckerman, as Roth’s fictional alter ego, moves along a similar trajectory. Mason argues that the trilogy Zuckerman narrated in the 1990s was really about Zuckerman, a writer at the acme of his storytelling strength. But now in Exit Ghost, Zuckerman is falling apart. His debilitation dovetails with Roth’s, and in the conjoining of these two downward arcs, Mason says, a work of intense pathos results. With Exit Ghost, he writes, Roth “has built a novel that not merely takes illness as theme but, unusually, makes it its form.”

On this point, however, despite the overall excellence of Mason’s piece, the reader has cause to be skeptical. After all, what can illness as a form produce but a weak form, or formlessness. This is exactly what Peter Kemp means when he calls the book weak and sloppy. Michael Dirda, addressing the same idea, writes, “At times I wondered if Roth was practicing what has sometimes been called the fallacy of imitative form—in this case, writing a slightly incoherent book to reflect the incoherence of his aging hero’s mind.”

Mason makes his defense eloquently: the failings in Exit Ghost are deliberate, reflecting the failings in life, and are therefore powerfully successful. Still, the reader can’t help but be wary of this sort of rationalizing, especially if Mason’s conclusion leans on a lifetime’s intimacy with two-dozen of Roth’s previous books. Such wariness grows throughout the reading of these reviews, as the reader comes to understand that the significance of Exit Ghost is inextricably bound up with at least one and possibly a whole host of earlier work. If we want any chance of liking it, we’re going to have to do a lot of homework. That’s an ominous note, but none of our reviewers can avoid striking it.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.