Philip Roth’s End
Reading his last novels, I longed to dispel Roth’s gloom until I realized he wants me to just sit with it
Philip Roth may have officially put down his pen, but his final years of writing were incredibly productive. Between 2006 and 2010, Roth wrote with a palpable urgency, releasing a new novel each year. Now, the Library of America’s release of these four books—Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and Nemesis (2010)—as a single volume (last in the nine-volume complete works) with annotations by Roth offers an opportunity to revisit what amounted to—though we didn’t know it at the time—the author’s parting words. And to imbibe Nemeses: Short Novels as the single reading experience that Roth seems to have intended, as the coda to an incredible body of literary work.
Next to convention-shattering books like Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) and masterworks like American Pastoral (1997), the books in Nemeses are unquestionably melancholy and spare.
“The four Nemeses novels are lesser additions to the Roth canon,” wrote J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books. “One can read them with admiration for their craft, their intelligence, their seriousness; but nowhere does one feel that the creative flame is burning at white heat, or the author being stretched by his material.” In Commentary, Sam Sacks expressed similar sentiments, noting: “The only real presence in these grim, portentous books is Roth himself, old and ceaselessly self-regarding—an important writer attempting to cap his career by the harsh and confining terms he has set throughout his life.”
Yet perhaps my generation, who came of age by the time most of Roth’s works had been written, is better situated to see the merits in Roth’s late-late style. The Nemeses books are not Roth’s most brilliant, but they are instructive if understood as the work of an author meditating on what it means to be nearing the end of life, and perhaps more important, the end of writing.
Roth anticipated his own current predicament in early works. In The Ghost Writer (1979), the young, wide-eyed Nathan Zuckerman is surprised to find that his aging literary idol, E.I. Lonoff, can only talk about how writing has become a kind of curse. As Lonoff’s wife is cooking in the kitchen, Zuckerman thinks: “The Mixmaster whirled and the fire popped and the wind blew and the trees groaned while I tried, at twenty-three, to think of how to dispel his gloom.” At 23, I too think of how to dispel Roth’s gloom, even though I understand that what Roth wants me—us—to do is sit with it.
The stories in Nemeses will be somewhat familiar to any Roth reader, although they differ in crucial ways—ways that hint at their finality. To take one example, Marcus Messner, the young protagonist of Indignation (2008), is a hardworking youth growing up in the Jewish part of Newark during the 1950s. Smothered by his parents, Marcus seeks freedom at Winesburg College (in Sherwood Anderson’s fictional Ohio town) and hopes that by working hard he will avoid being drafted into the Korean War. A naive son of Newark struggling with overbearing parents and the onset of adulthood, Marcus is a natural successor to the infamous Alexander Portnoy—a parallel to which Roth directs his readers.
Working in his parents’ butcher shop over the summer, Marcus handles meat in a way that Roth describes rather graphically: “It was my job not just to pluck the chickens but to eviscerate them,” Marcus explains. “You slit the ass open a little bit and you stick your hand up and grab the viscera and you pull them out”—a description that threw me right back to one of the most vivid scenes of Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Portnoy violates a liver behind a billboard.
But this is repetition with a difference. Whereas Portnoy’s liver remains the medley of semen and liver juice to which Portnoy condemns it, the blood oozing from Marcus’ fowl foreshadows the nightmarish ending that befalls him. Roth hints at his earlier work only to show us that he’s changed his focus: Masturbation can be hilarious, but death offers little in the way of comic relief.
Similarly, The Humbling (2009), which tells the story of an actor named Simon Axler who becomes suicidal after he “loses his magic” in the first line of the book, is often reminiscent of Roth’s 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater. When Mickey Sabbath, a puppeteer who loses his beloved Indecent Puppet Theater and, later, his sexual partner-in-crime to cancer, he is propelled, like Axler, to contemplate suicide. But unlike Sabbath, who finds that he’d rather embrace the “nasty side of existence” than end his life altogether, Axler discovers no such comfort and successfully commits the act that Sabbath could not. That caustic yet poetic conclusion to Sabbath’s Theater—“And he couldn’t do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here”—is in some ways undermined by Axler’s effective suicide. As Pegeen, the woman with whom Axler has a brief affair, tells him, “This is the end.” And here, there’s no mistaking that.
This sense that Roth is gesturing to and yet turning away from his earlier work is in part what’s so fascinating about Nemeses. Is Roth denouncing the ideas put forth in his earlier work or merely complicating them? What is clear is that Roth’s turn toward the subject of mortality was accompanied by an abandonment of earlier, more parochial, concerns. In the 30th-anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Roth’s first book, he remarked of his younger self:
It amazed him that any truly literate audience could seriously be interested in his store of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan—about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their underlying embarrassments and their ideas of success.
Indeed, Roth’s works have primarily grappled with “the rites and taboos” of the Jews. His protagonists—almost always Jewish, male, and American—circle around the same anxieties: that as Jews, they’re too bound by guilt to enjoy the fruits of the earth; that as men, they’re not sexually or emotionally adequate; and that as Americans, their personal experiences hinder them from feeling patriotic.
The host of Obama’s second inaugural party, Sen. Charles Schumer, is America’s lovable Jewish Uncle Leo