Classic Books: Exit Ghost

exitghost1I’ve been reading the above Philip Roth novel. The critics don’t like it – it’s set during the 2004 election, and I think people were expecting a barnstorming anti-Bush novel rather than the short, eerie requiem that they got. But I reckon Exit Ghost will get its due in good time. Here’s why.

Nathan Zuckerman is Roth’s novelist alter-ego. He first turns up as a fledgeling creative in The Ghost Writer, and Roth charts his success and excess through several further novels. By the time we get to American Pastoral, Zuckerman is in his sixties and living a life of semi-rural seclusion. Left impotent by prostrate cancer, his role in the history trilogy is reduced to writing about the lives of the few who cross his path.

In Exit Ghost, the last Zuckerman book, the ageing novelist goes back to New York after eleven years of solitude to have an operation that could alleviate his chronic incontinence. Back in the city, he gets involved with a young literary couple who want to exchange their NYC apartment for Zuckerman’s quiet Athena mountaintop retreat. Zuckerman becomes obsessed with Jamie Logan, the beautiful female half of the couple, and writes eloquent and erotic dialogues between the old man and the young woman that he calls ‘He and She’ and that we suspect will be his last written work.

There are so many relationships with massive age gaps in Roth’s fiction – think of disgraced professor Coleman Silk’s romance with illiterate cleaner Faunia Farley, or pint-sized libertine Mickey Sabbath’s seduction of his audiovisual students – that you almost think Zuckerman has a chance here. But his affair with Jamie exists only on the page, and often not even there. According to Roth:

Zuckerman, who has yielded to any number of ‘rash moments’ by leaving his rural retreat for New York and then deciding to stay there, tries unsuccessfully to get Jamie to succumb to one by taking an interest in him, if not in real life, at least in his playlet He and She. All he succeeds in doing – in He and She – is getting her to read The Shadow-Line. In real life, it’s worse – she doesn’t like him at all. ‘Rash moments,’ Jamie says in He and She , ‘lead to rash encounters. Rash moments … lead to perilous choices.’ Well, in real life she’s having none of that, certainly not with a man 41 years her – and her husband’s – senior.

It’s frightening, but also optimistic, to realise that the ‘rash moments’ and chaotic impulses of youth can persist beyond our seventies.

As Roth says, Zuckerman’s New York is a city of ghosts – his dead mentor Lonoff and his dying lover Amy Bellette; the dead novelist George Plimpton whom Zuckerman eulogises in the book, the ghost of a relationship that could have been if Zuckerman and Jamie’s generations had coincided, and the ghost of Zuckerman’s younger self – represented by the figure of Richard Kliman.

The medical procedure to relieve his incontinence doesn’t work, his disintegrating memory is finally having an impact on his day-today life and even inhibiting his fiction. Pretty much everything that happens to Zuckerman during this book is an object lesson in his own insignificance and failing powers.

The strongest illustration of this is in Zuckerman’s encounter with Richard Kliman, a young biographer who hits up the older man for information on Lonoff. Zuckerman becomes fixated on this guy, inventing scandalous motives for his Lonoff biography, conjecturing that he is Jamie’s abusive lover – his obsession with Kliman is the dark flipside of his obsession with Jamie.

Zuckerman still has guts; he confronts Kliman with aggression and wit. But his high rhetoric about the sensationalism of literary biography only conceals the low motivations of Zuckerman’s hate – because he is jealous of Kliman’s (supposed) relationship with Jamie, and because Kliman is a taunting reminder of the compelling young voice Zuckerman once was. It’s interesting that, in her interview with Roth, Hermione Lee does not seem to understand this:


One of Zuckerman’s most enraging encounters on his return to the city is with Richard Kliman, the would-be biographer of EI Lonoff, a stop-at-nothing, energetic, shameless young literary predator. Why does Zuckerman so resist the biographer’s project to reveal the late Lonoff’s secret history? What is the source of Zuckerman’s animus against biography?


Perhaps the question to answer first is, What is the source of his animus against Kliman?… That Zuckerman should be defeated by Kliman and unable to stop him is a discovery whose pain is hardly mitigated – whose pain is enhanced – by the fact that 28-year-old Kliman, visibly at the pinnacle of his powers as a virile young man, is ascertained by Zuckerman to be the adulterous lover of Jamie Logan, the desirable young woman unattainable to the writer.

Exit Ghost isn’t just an intriguing coda to the counterlife but a classic Roth novel in its own right: an exploration of ghosts that are past and have never been. And he offers valuable insight into why people write:

Isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.


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