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Where is Philip Roth now?

Over a recent period of less than five years, Philip Roth published, in rapid succession, five relatively short novels. In both their brevity and in the rapidity of their production, these novels initiate collisions in a world spinning out of control. With the publication of Everyman in 2006, Exit Ghost in 2007, Indignation in 2008, The Humbling in 2009, and Nemesis in 2010, Roth carries us, in a breathless, headlong rush, to what might be described as the center of the maelstrom, the epicenter of confusion, infuriation, havoc, defeat, and, indeed, indignation. At the heart of such pandemonium remains the protracted desire to live the Rothian trope of the counterlife, a fantasy that has stalked Roth's restless characters ever since Goodbye, Columbus. These are characters whose self-fashioning takes an uneven, erratically fraught trajectory. We see Roth move them from the largely unsuccessful attempts at imagining themselves as other than Jews as they hasten into an ascending middle-class American life, to reinventing themselves back into Jews, only to shed that ill-fitting attire once again as self-consciously as Eli Peck dons the black-clothed, orthodox garb of his adversarial double or as Henry Zuckerman remakes himself as Hanoch in Israel. Thus Roth's fiction will usually give us an exercise in escape, or as Nathan Zuckerman puts it, "an exchange of existences," not unlike "after a great war, the exchange of prisoners," momentarily scuttling from one uncertain, seized-upon life into another (The Counterlife 156).

These five novels published in the new millennium are fitting for an aging Roth, because they show the consequences of the thwarted desire to live out counterlives, wishful yearnings of characters who imagine themselves living other lives, other selves. A quarter of a century ago, a tenacious Nathan Zuckerman set the stage for the impersonation of the self, for the long and often wearisome exhibition that is involved in anxious self-fashioning: "one long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself" (The Counterlife 365). The ironic playfulness with which Roth's earlier protagonists invent and reinvent lives, while all along, as Zuckerman gleefully contends, "impersonating one's selves," creates a temporary antidote to the confusions and uncertainties of postwar American-Jewish life (The Counterlife 370). In many ways, The Counterlife both comments on the desperate antics of earlier characters' wishful thinking and bumbling attempts to reconstruct their lives and, at the same time, might be seen as a precursor to these shorter novels. Indeed, I would suggest that Roth's recent novels are the aged outgrowth of the ironic possibilities of attempts to live the counterlife. As such, these novels--vignettes of the "art of impersonation"--show the generically tragic impossibility of self-reinvention, revealing such willful attempts at living the counterlife to be the ultimate self-delusion. For, as Zuckerman prophesies in The Counterlife, instead of "turning what-was into what-wasn't or what-might-be into what-was--there was only the deadly earnest this-is-it of what-is" (38). Existential doubt becomes self-deluding existential confidence, which is in turn followed by ruthless realism. Or, as the narrator of Everyman, some twenty year later, with the kind of finality that can only come from the grave, will affirm, "There's no remaking reality. Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes" (5).

Of course, holding their ground is not easy for Roth's edgy protagonists, and, after years of protracted and muddled attempts at constructing and reconstructing the lives that might have been lived, such characters are exhausted. After all, the pretense of living the counterlife, as Zuckerman puts it, is exhausting, "an identity ... formed by the terrifying power of an imagination richer with reality than your own" (The Counterlife 164). The very design of these novellas itself speaks to the exhaustion that Roth's characters experience. The brevity of these narratives suggests a kind of incompletion, surrendering to, as Bucky Cantor puts it, "whatever the hell is going on here" (75). For conjuring up a continuous self requires the kind of patience, caution, and exactitude of which Roth's characters are inevitably dispossessed. Rather, they brim with impatience, imprudence (as well as impudence), and freewheeling improvisation. As the narrator of Roth's Indignation reminds us, "The tiniest, littlest things do have tragic consequences" (5). One misstep, the failure of the backward glance, and it is too late to maintain the pretense of otherness. In these late, packed short novels, Roth gives us, not only the embittered Bucky Cantor but also the more deeply disenchanted Marcus Messner, stuck in all eternity "muck[ing] over a lifetime's minutiae ... not just shackled to ... life while living it" but "stuck with it after you're gone" (Indignation 55). He gives us the protagonist of Everyman, ordinary in death as he was in life and "assailed by remorse ... for all his mistakes, all the ineradicable, stupid, inescapable mistakes" (158). He gives us the unmagical, fearful Simon Axler, who, at the novel's close can only recognize that all "the failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled," and even the worn-out Zuckerman, "gone for good" at the conclusion of Exit Ghost (138, 292). These characters all share the same script, even though they are all portraits of singular failures. And as the enfeebled Yakov Blotnik might have put it long ago, their collective condition is certainly "no-good-for-the-Jews" ("The Conversion of the Jews" 150).

Thus, Roth's later characters come to be defined, not as much by their ironic cleverness but by their failures. And these short novels, especially the tetralogy of Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and Nemesis, might be seen as an apologia for the impossibly conceived lives of their protagonists. This is not to say that Roth's characteristically mischievous, self-reflexive, and comically ironic voice has disappeared entirely from these works (although Nemesis might well be the exception). But in the tetralogy, we find the shielding, ironic comportment of Roth's characters, if not replaced by fear, then tempered by unadorned, unembellished fear. Indeed, these recent protagonists find themselves hounded by terror, "the terror of the unforeseen," to borrow a phrase from The Plot Against America (114). While the fear of death is characteristically Roth, the characters in these later novels confront the kind of limitless terror, even more terrifying than dying, that comes from recognizing the waste, the deceit, and the endless infractions and fabrications with which they have fraudulently shaped their lives. To this end, these characters are motivated by fear and its arresting self-reflection.

As the narrator of Everyman knows all too well, "No one could say there wasn't enough sadness to go around or enough remorse to prompt the fugue of questions with which he attempted to defend the story of his life" (95). As if once removed, it's the story of his life--of all their lives--rather than the life itself that is in need of defending. For, as Nathan Zuckerman cleverly and chiastically predicted, the story exists as a kind of defense, a barricade against the realities of inconsequence and impotence: "the kind of stories that people turn life into, the kind of lives that people turn stories into" (The Counterlife 124). In turning life into story and story into life, such characters, ever since Roth's literary debut, have been defended by their wily, unbounded imaginations. If life is story, then one can forever edit and revise; life can take unexpected turns of fancy and fortune, if only temporarily. But these later works offer narratives that have been hijacked by the limitations of time and possibility, because there are, very simply, no further justifications, no further prevarications and rationalizations, no more second chances, as Bucky Cantor, stricken with polio and even more so with guilt and remorse, comes to learn. Plagued by a sense of helplessness and by their seemingly endless capacity for denial, these characters exist in a kind of suspended animation occasioned by time's menacing advance. For Marcus Messner, Simon Axler, Bucky Cantor, the unnamed-but-all-too-recognizable narrator of Everyman, and even the seemingly indomitable Nathan Zuckerman are all, finally, unable to alter the course of history and character, unable, that is, to write a new ending to the story. They have all been menacingly undone by their treacherous fantasies.

Thus, Roth's unhappy characters in the fiction written since the turn of the twenty-first century seem to have lost faith in fiction's talismanic powers of reinvention. And this may have something to do with the times, with an increasing sense of fragmentation and defeat, accompanied by a staggering compendium of deficit and loss. This time of anxious ineptitude and impermanence is set in ironic contrast to another era, as the narrator of Nemesis cavalierly suggests, "that decade when it seemed that the greatest menaces on earth were war, the atomic bomb, and polio," tangible threats and recognizable adversaries, but external, and potentially resolvable, ones (Nemesis 244). Perhaps, then, these novels are a response to the times in which we live, a reflection of the fear and apprehension that seems to tarnish the early twenty-first century in America. And thus, the crafty imagination that has sustained Roth's protagonists for so long fails to buttress them; they don't bounce back so easily. The imagined life has been threatened by the realities of circumstance and exigency, the constraints and requirements of living in the early decades of the twenty-first century, a condition surely that would compel one to enter into, as "She" tells "He" at the end of Exit Ghost, "a desperate story of unreasonable wishes" (291). But instead of falling back on narrative's regenerative powers, these protagonists crumble in the face of regret, turning defeatedly, as does Bucky Cantor, impetuous desire into tragedy and "tragedy into guilt" (Nemesis 265). And thus the comically exuberant banter that has for decades characterized Roth's protagonists, a circuitously executed exchange of existences, yields to a catalog of regret, a litany of "if only," a resounding mantra of remorse, a lengthening register of mistakes, failures, misjudgments, and impulsive, headlong gambles against fortune and inevitability. As the narrator of Indignation self-admonishingly admits: "Yes, if only this and if only that, we'd all be together and alive forever and everything would work out fine. If only ... if only ... if only ... if only ... if only ... if only ... if only he hadn't ... if only ... if only ... if only" (229-30). This is the same voice of angry surrender that we hear in Bucky Cantor's self-flagellating tirade against his own impulsive longings that caused him to abandon his better judgment, his conscience, and his well-ensconced sense of duty and responsibility and to flee plague-ridden Newark for the enticement of Indian Hill, a false Eden tucked away in the Poconos: "If only he'd stayed ... if only he'd stayed ... he would never have had to ... look back for a lifetime at his inexcusable act" (194). Blindsided by desire-gone-mad, these characters are forced to look within simply because there is no longer anyplace to cast the furtive gaze.

Here Roth's protagonists are, very simply, sad, weary, angry, and without recourse. There are no more game plans. The "act" that is the insistent impersonation of a self, the theater upon which they have played out their most excessive and exhibitionistic fantasies, has fallen on hard times. Have Roth's characters learned anything? If so, it is, as the narrator of Everyman miserably contends, "nothing when measured against the inevitable onslaught that is the end of life" (156). And so, finally, they can only, in a parody of Job, rail against the deceptions and betrayals that have been made with impunity and with a mistaken belief in a beneficent, encouraging superego. They unsuccessfully try to "find a necessity for what happens," "a reason" outside of themselves for their misery and self-defeating antics, which will cause Bucky Cantor regressively to resist the obvious: "Why? Why? That it is pointless, contingent, preposterous, and tragic will not satisfy him" (Nemesis 265). And, so too like Job, in Roth's universe one can do all the wrong things and all the right things, and still be culpable, still cast out. Here we find Roth's characteristic, temporarily curative and often therapeutically ironic voice stripped, not only of its good humor, but also of its accommodating distance. This is not to say that Roth has entirely lost his ironically edgy posture. His protagonists are still entertainingly disparaging, still immodestly insistent, and still gratifyingly irreverent. That is, still Roth. It is only to say that in these later works, Roth's characters look into the mirror and find only themselves, "no hocus-pocus" (Everyman 51). As the narrator of Everyman at long last admits, "This was the only life he'd have" (170). Though one should always be suspicious of voices from the dead, as Marcus Messner, from death's strange vantage point, reveals, in death as in life "There are no doors.... The direction ... is only back and the judgment is endless, though not because some deity judges you, but because your actions are naggingly being judged for all time by yourself ... all that exists is the recollected past, not recovered, mind you ... but merely replayed (57). Self-judgment for Roth, as always, is the most exacting, most rigorous, the most unforgiving judgment of all.

DOI: 10.1353/ajl.2012.0001


Roth, Philip. "The Conversion of the Jews." In Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. 1959. Repr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

--. The Counterlife. 1986. Rpt. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.

--. Everyman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006.

--. Exit Ghost. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.

--. Indignation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008.

--. Nemesis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

--. The Plot Against America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

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Author:Aarons, Victoria
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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