Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Humbling by Philip Roth

Not too long ago, I was in a bookstore speaking to the owner about Philip Roth. "Do you ever finish one and start another one and feel as though you're reading the same book?" he asked. This is the 15th Roth novel I've read, and "The Humbling" feels indeed like familiar territory, though perhaps not for the same reason my friend spoke of.

Simon Axler is a well-known actor in his sixties who suddenly experiences stage fright and retires from performance. From the moment he leaves his familiar life, he struggles toward understanding who he really is. Suicide begins to appeal to him. He finds himself in a recovery program:

"Everybody else would be sitting there gloomily silent, inwardly intense and rehearsing to themselves - in the lexicon of pop psychology or gutter obscenity or Christian suffering or paranoid pathology - the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, vengeance, jealousy, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, and grief."

In the process, Axler has an unlikely reunion with Pegeen, a young woman whom he has known for all of her life, since she is the daughter of a couple he has known since before she was born. Pegeen has been living as a lesbian, but she forms an attachment with Axler and begins transforming herself into a compliant, feminine companion for him. But there is something artificial about Pegeen, just as there has been something artificial about Axler before he lost the ability to be someone else on stage.

Reading Roth one gets a sense of secrets revealed, writ large, magnified to a staggering power, so that the characters stagger under the weight of them. Like many of Roth's later protagonists, Axler is dealing with the effects of age, or "the panic that comes with age." While Axler feels something with Pegeen that he hopes is genuine, he also suspects it too is an act. He is struggling against time, and against reality, as we all do. This makes him a paler cousin of Nathan Zuckerman, without the writer's prolific and poetic disgust.

As with his last book, Roth sets all these meditations down in a spare prose, barely sketching in some details and letting his characters flail about against themselves against tragedies that are foreordained as much as Oedipus'. Toward the novel's end, Axler is attached to Pegeen and goes wherever she takes him, which inevitably leads to his "humbling." What makes this novel unsettling - and somewhat unsatisfying - is the ending that is telegraphed from the beginning, which doesn't seem to affirm anything other than the luckless and loveless nature of Axler's life, and one assumes, life itself. "The failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled." So in the end, one senses that the despair Axler feels is really Roth's, and that Roth says it should be our own.

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