Friday, September 21, 2007

Philip Roth's "Everyman": Review
My title refers to the unnamed protagonist's indirectly expressed (through a fittingly omniscient if humanly bound narrator) thought: "Should he ever write an autobiography, he'd call it 'The Life and Death of a Male Body.' But after retiring he tried becoming a painter, not a writer, and so he gave that title to a series of his abstractions." (52) The fiction may be a bit too abstract, but it's meant to place our universal limits within a particular body, imperfect by nature.

The novel regresses, in reverse after his burial opens the action, back as if he imagines relating his life to "each of the women who had been waiting for him to rise out of the anesthetic in the recovery room." (15) This allows the chronology of his days to unfold, forward erratically but appropriately, as if remembered as a series of vignettes. This does distance a reader considerably from empathy with this often selfish character. But, Roth presents us with a recognizably flawed tragic hero, not a plaster saint or thwarted genius. His Everyman without a name could stand in, and does, for all of us. It may not be a perfect novel because of this verisimilitude, ironically. The uneven emotional states and the dull stretches appear more identifiably real, because Roth refuses to polish or prettify these moments of pain and loss.

The fear grows as the years progress; Millicent Kramer's fate foreshadows his own terribly and movingly. Her decision at the end of her life provides an option akin to that wondered about by Hamlet, who wondered about "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns." This quote does not appear, but a witty aside to Hamlet does, mouthed by the bitter wife who's thrown over as the protagonist's lusts overcome his commonsense and his family's unity is shattered by his own desire and deceit. He lies that he only visited his mistress to break up with her, and that she cried "the whole four nights" (of their tryst):"That's a lot of crying for a twenty-four-year-old Dane. I don't even think Hamlet cried that much." (119-120)

The protagonist's sons do not appear in a good light. But, the book is presented, during the character's life, from his indirect point-of-view. This obliquity forces us to side with him even as we try to separate ourselves from his foibles. He gets defensive, as any of us would in telling our own side of our life's story. Roth takes this reflex and works it subtly into his novel.

The two sons resent his abandoning their mother for this Danish model, who's not even half his age of fifty. They are briefly evoked as "children who by their nature could not understand there might be more than one explanation to human behavior--children, however, with the appearance and aggression of men, and against whose undermining he could never manage to make a solid defense. They elected to make the absent father suffer, and so he did, investing them with that power." (97) It's a twist perhaps on Lear, too, a masculine alternative. Roth underplays this aspect, but one does get the sense that some of the loneliness and isolation is self-inflicted. This jars the chance that the character thinks he has to bed a twenty-something woman he flirts with on his seaside stroll; it does for me spoil the mood of the book when the man assumes that from early manhood into his fifties he could have any woman he wanted any time. You get the often romanticized wish fulfillment of many writers, not to mention we readers, projected here, which does appear sadly to be belied by the life experiences of many of us ordinary men! I guess that's why they call it fiction.

But libido declines, and the memories stubbornly persist. This is what we fear about our aging, after all. He wonders: "was the best of old age just that--the longing for the best of boyhood"? (126) The distance between him and his Newark past, the Jewish heritage of his youth and his own detachment and perhaps total rejection, bothered me. I wondered as I neared the close if this would return as a thread to be tied into the weaving of the narrative arc. In a scene that risks sentimentalizing, and perhaps hints at what's been derided as the appearance of "the Magic Negro," the character meets at his parents' gravesite a middle-aged gravedigger. Again, although unmentioned, Hamlet's ghosts flittered for me. Roth always likes to incorporate in his fiction engrossing detail of how a craft is carried out; I think of his extended take on glovemaking in one novel among his recent Zuckerman trilogy.

Here, the cemetery worker shows how we open up and then close over what the main figure thinks of as "the brutality of burial and the mouth full of dust." (166) This suffuses the later, desperate, pages of the novel with a needed softness. I welcomed the scene, identifying both with the fear of the elderly Jews mourning their loss and being targeted by muggers even in daylight, and the slow subsiding of the ground and the toppling of the headstones as the earth shifted and the visitors dwindled. It's a powerful evocation of both the inevitable forgetting of those who came before us and of the end of the Jewish presence in that little patch near the exit to Newark Airport.

It's a neighborhood Roth in his fiction often recalls, and his character here follows suit, even as the curtain prepares to fall. "But now it appeared that like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless days through to the end as no more than he was--the aimless days and uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing. This is how it works out, he thought, this is what you could not know." (161) Roth attempts to enter the "undiscovered country." But even he, as you will read in the last sentences, cannot return and report beyond the poignant and appropriate ending. It's one that we all wish we could escape.

P.S. A necessary book to read, if in its honesty a painful one. As this was on the public library's new book shelf the day that my father-in-law died, and as I had been wanting to read it even as I feared a bit doing so, I took it as a sign. Still, I postponed my finishing it it yesterday as I did not want to close my eyes on its final page. I waited until the next day to conclude and write this review.

(Posted to Amazon today. Image: Hamlet contemplates Yorick; the paperback of "Everyman" has more color, and the watch marks the protagonist's father's trade. The hardcover was black with white stark text only.)

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