Friday, February 14, 2014

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost

Christopher Hitchens' review of Philip Roth’s 2007 Exit Ghost is funny and brilliant.

That said, and granting many of the damning points made, I liked the book quite a bit more than him. First the agreements:

The sassy shiksa still drives Roth/Zuckerman to lusty agony (emotionally only, that is --the protagonist is impotent after prostate surgery), though Roth's eros-thanatos dialectic has been debased. No one gives a damn about literature, especially not the young upstarts talking half the day on their cell phones -- grumpy old man makes visit to New York city after decades-long absence. Jamie’s dialogue with the “seductive” Zuckerman is stilted and unbelievable. And the conversations – all characters expatiate joylessly – are boring and repetitive.

Yet Roth paints a few bulls-eyes, as well. Hitchens, surprisingly, adds no word on the largest concern in the novel: the traffic between respect for privacy and the desire (right?) for the public to go after, and discover, secrets, whether they’re cheap and dubious or pertinent and spiritually revelatory. Zuckerman, in this light, and despite his morose obsession with writing and (as the novel progresses) desperate plea to Jamie to resuscitate his soggy organ, attacks the public’s insatiable appetite for trite journalistic detail concerning their faddish heroes. The irony is that Lonoff, Roth’s mentor, has been forgotten, anyway, but as Zuckerman has it, that’s not the point. Dignity doesn’t depend on whether or not the public cares for the degraded presumptions, only that they were made against the dead’s inability to defend them. One can see more than a little fear in Roth’s own life and work here. Zuckerman’s hatred and envy of the young, strong, and charismatic Kliman is palpable.

The Amy Bellette character – with brain cancer in its final stages – is well done and quite an achievement. She’s drawn sympathetically, hard to do while unflinchingly dwelling on her physical ruin and mental collapse.

Roth also aces class hypocrisy, having Zuckerman catch Jamie’s complaint about the use of the word “underprivileged”.

“SHE: I don’t like that word.

HE: Why?

SHE: Well, what does it mean? Under privileged. Either you have privilege or you don’t have privilege ...

HE: You were yourself  so privileged. One might even say overprivileged.”

Jamie had earlier struck out in rage and disbelief during and after George Bush’s election night second-term win. Yet she’s the beneficiary of old Houston money – (her father was friends with Bush Sr.) – which put her in the connected schools right up the line, which then allowed an acceptance of her neophyte effort in the New York Times despite the fact she always seemed to be too afraid (after 9/11) to work at all.

And on that always prickly and complex class speculation, Roth, in a curious structural choice toward the end of the novel, crafts a sedate and admiring introspective eulogy on the late George Plimpton. The aristocratic New England editor and essayist wasn’t slumming, as many (Mailer included) criticized, when the author of Paper Lion and Out Of My League tried his hand at exhibition play with the pros of football, baseball, boxing, and golf. (I’ve read, and delighted in, all of his sports ventures and would select The Bogey Man as Plimpton’s best.) Remarkable that one so privileged could create such a sympathetic picture of the borderline roster players in all those sports. Roth’s point is that Plimpton’s talent and compassionate observational powers were so advanced he could overcome those charges with in-depth adventures in class contrasts, not hypocritically sucking up to the disadvantaged nor boasting about the stars.

But how does that tie in to Roth’s main narrative? Well, it’s a damnation of Zuckerman (and by extension Roth) since – PLOT SPOILER! -- the writer is reduced to sour personal defense among his own kind -- fellow writers -- which can only be “won” by having the first-person narrator denying Jamie in his own alternate narrative in Exit Ghost’s final page.

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