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The counterlife

Exit Ghost A Novel; Philip Roth; Houghton Mifflin: 304 pp., $26

September 30, 2007|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

AH, longevity. Without it, we would have to think differently about Philip Roth. Despite the success and notoriety (and, yes, outright brilliance) of "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Portnoy's Complaint," his early career is, frankly, spotty, marked by minor efforts ("Our Gang," "The Breast") and books such as "When She Was Good" and "My Life as a Man" that never seem to find their way. Indeed, it was only with the 1979 publication of "The Ghost Writer," the first of his novels to feature Nathan Zuckerman, that Roth uncovered what has become the center of his work.

It's not that he wasn't ambitious; he didn't call his 1973 baseball fantasia "The Great American Novel" for nothing, after all. Yet to look back at Roth's writing of the 1960s and 1970s is to see a writer in chrysalis, testing out themes and ideas -- the relationship of Jewishness and Americanness, the interplay between art and identity, the ongoing struggle of the self to define itself -- that he would get at with far greater acuity in his later work.

Longevity, of course, is now a hallmark of Roth's writing, and not only because his oeuvre stretches over 50 years. Roth himself has addressed it directly in his last two novels, the exquisite "Everyman," which came out last year, and the newly published "Exit Ghost." Both books deal with death, with aging, not as metaphor but as fact. "The end is so immense," a character notes in "Exit Ghost," "it is its own poetry. It requires little rhetoric. Just state it plainly."

This is what Roth did in "Everyman," which begins with its protagonist's funeral before working back into his life. And he's after something similar with "Exit Ghost," which comes billed as the ninth, and last, book to feature Zuckerman, Roth's de facto alter ego, reclusive author of the infamous "Carnovsky," a novel that has more than a little bit in common with "Portnoy's Complaint." It's a common, if understandable, error to read the Zuckerman books as thinly veiled autobiography, fiction as memoir. In fact, Roth is engaged in a more fundamental process -- to present "rumination in narrative form." As Zuckerman suggests halfway through the novel: "For some very, very few that amplification [of fiction], 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."

"Exit Ghost" opens days before the 2004 presidential election, as Zuckerman returns to Manhattan for a medical procedure after an absence of 11 years. He's been sitting out the present at his retreat in the Berkshires, reading, writing, thinking in splendid isolation, apart from "everything I'd determined I no longer had use for: Here and Now." For Zuckerman, stability is everything; like E. I. Lonoff, the writer he visits in "The Ghost Writer," he finds solace in the habits of routine.

And yet, Roth means to tell us, routine is often just a way around temptation, a ruse that lets us believe we're in control of ourselves, when in reality we're not. Zuckerman comes face to face with this on his first night in the city, when on a whim he answers a personal ad in the New York Review of Books and agrees to swap houses with a young married couple, a deal that grows increasingly complicated when he becomes infatuated with Jamie, the wife. This is typical Roth, but here it comes with a twist, for Zuckerman is impotent, a prostate cancer survivor, and as such feels unable to pursue a relationship except in his imagination.

In the past, imagination has been Zuckerman's salvation -- and by extension Roth's as well. The novels of the Zuckerman Trilogy ("The Ghost Writer," "Zuckerman Unbound" and "The Anatomy Lesson," which were collected in 1985, along with the novella "The Prague Orgy," as "Zuckerman Bound" and are being reissued by the Library of America simultaneously with the publication of "Exit Ghost") are all about imagination, its pleasures and its risks. In "The Ghost Writer," Zuckerman, 23 and the author of four short stories, spends the night at the home of his idol Lonoff, where he fantasizes that another guest, a young woman named Amy Bellette, is really Anne Frank, miraculously alive. Although he knows this is invention, he's swept up in its air of possibility.

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