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No Country for Young Men

In Philip Roth’s new novel, an aging Zuckerman faces a youthful nemesis

Marco Roth
October 25, 2007

Richard Kliman has the misfortune to be both an outwardly virile young man and a biographer. Either one would be enough to annoy a 71-year-old novelist, aware that his reputation will soon fall out of his own hands, beset by the side effects of a radical prostectomy—impotence, incontinence—and yet still possessing undiminished narrative powers. No, the writer is not Philip Roth, but one of his fictional alter egos, Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman shares his creator’s oft-noted belief that biographers are the enemy of literature, along with book reviewers, academic literary critics, and the cultural journalism of The New York Times.

At least Kliman isn’t trying to write Zuckerman’s biography, though he wants the old man’s help with a planned book about an even older writer, E.I. Lonoff, the reclusive genius of Roth’s first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer. (The density of Roth’s fictional universe is such that every summary now requires an allusion.) Kliman’s research has led him to Amy Bellette, Lonoff’s former student and mistress, the young lady with the strange foreign accent “from the country of fetching,” whom young Zuckerman had imagined to be a still-alive Anne Frank. Now 75 and suffering from a brain tumor, Amy unwittingly provides Kliman with a terrible Lonoff family secret. “I assume the great secret is sexual,” Zuckerman scoffs when Kliman tries to tell him about it, and it is, of course. “You’re going to redeem Lonoff’s reputation as a writer by ruining it as a man. Replace the genius of the genius with the secret of the genius. Rehabilitation by disgrace,” Zuckerman tells him. The stakes couldn’t be clearer: The old literary lion returns once more to the fray to defend the cause of literature against this newest philistine who cannot understand that art uses facts only to create its own kind of independent truth.

Zuckerman understands his dislike of Kliman is, in part, a natural turn of fortune’s wheel:

I’d been treated by writers and critics, then in their forties and fifties as though I didn’t and couldn’t know anything about anything, except a little something perhaps about sex…. If I dared speak, these elders would scornfully shut me up, sure that I knew nothing because of my age and my “advantages”—advantages wholly imagined by them, their intellectual curiosity never extending to anyone younger, unless the younger one was much younger and pretty and a woman.

One of the wonderful things about Roth as a novelist is his desire to make both his characters’ and readers’ judgments of situations more complex, to bring every motive to the fore. Yet this characteristic effort to do his best for the enemy does not, in this instance, prevent Zuckerman from believing that his own struggles against younger and older generations are more legitimate than those waged against him. He knows he’s right; and, as the novel is set up, it’s too easy to see it his way. Kliman’s callowness is more callow than young Nathan’s. He is not a would-be novelist, as was Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer, or even a critic, but a would-be biographer, without a contract or even an agent. He does not want to shape literary taste, only reputations. Reputation has replaced taste. “I know you,” Zuckerman thinks. “It’s another of your entitlements to do harm should you want to. And, strictly speaking, it’s not harm that you do—merely the fulfilling of a right you would be a fool to relinquish. I know you: you wish to gain the approval of the adults you clandestinely set about to defile. There’s a cunning pleasure in that, and safety too.”

Of course Kliman claims, not insincerely, that he really does want to rescue Lonoff’s reputation for posterity: “He should be in the Library of America,” he says. “Singer is, with three volumes of stories. Why not E.I. Lonoff?” Even in earnest, this is an impotent form of ambition. The young Zuckerman of The Ghost Writer, in contrast, wanted to be, one day, a living immortal. He could imagine himself “the only living writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America.” He would not be a mere curator in the haunted museum of literature. Kliman may meet Zuckerman in jogging shorts after a dash around Central Park’s Great Lawn, displaying his tanned, exercised body, but he doesn’t even have what it takes to carry on an affair with his old college girlfriend. This is, naturally, what Zuckerman imagines he’s doing, because it’s what young Zuckerman would do; Zuckerman’s fantasy life, even at his age, is anything but castrated.

There’s a good deal that’s accurate in Roth’s depiction of Zuckerman’s latest epigone and antagonist. Roth’s grasp of what makes Kliman both prematurely aged and regressively adolescent isn’t conveyed through Zuckerman but through Jamie Logan, the college ex-girlfriend who defends Kliman: “Richard’s not alone, he lives in a careerist world, a world where if you’re not careerist you feel like a failure. A world that’s all about reputation. You’re an older person coming back, and you don’t know what it is to be young now.” This historical change in the meaning of male youth—a mix of attention seeking, risk aversion, and a heavy sense of belatedness—is one of the subtler themes of the novel, and one that provides it with that dash of “news” that all novels need.

Kliman isn’t the only specimen of youth Zuckerman encounters. There’s also Billy Davidoff, Jamie’s husband, “a chubby young man with a soft, agreeable manner,” a description that unpleasantly recalls a harem eunuch. Billy, Zuckerman says, “seemed to take pleasure in deferentially calling me Mr. Zuckerman.” Billy is a more honest kind of venerator, not just of Zuckerman, but of his own wife: “It was clear that she was considered by them the more brilliant of the two and that his personality was swaddled in hers.” In Zuckerman’s eyes, little Billy becomes “a masterpiece of male devotion.”

Zuckerman meets these young aspirants when, in a sudden regression to old habits, he browses the New York Review of Books classifieds and comes across an ad for a house swap. Billy and Jamie want to flee the Upper West Side—she’s frightened of an imminent terrorist attack and can’t concentrate on writing—and Zuckerman has grown suddenly tired of his reclusive retreat in the Berkshires. He needs to return to the city he left behind (just before September 11th, 2001) for an experimental treatment, an injection of collagen that might abate his incontinence and restore some of his dignity—and maybe, with a ghost of a chance, his virility.

The hope that he might somehow avoid “the gifts reserved for age”—the extinction of desire, calm of mind, all passion spent—leads Zuckerman into his latest fantasy. It’s built around 30-year-old Jamie, who is apparently endowed with every virtue—intellectual and moral—Roth can bestow. The daughter of Houston oil money and Bush pioneers, she’s escaped her privileged background, nursed her older sister until her death from Lou Gehrig’s disease, read lots of 19th-century literature, and been published in the New Yorker—not to mention that she’s tall, slender, and dark haired, with “a creamy, impeccably soft surface.” Zuckerman’s infatuation takes over the night of the 2004 election, as he sits in Billy and Jamie’s apartment watching the results come in. The scene actually works as a fantastic novelization of Yeats’s last poem, the one that begins “How can I, that girl standing there/my attention fix/On Roman or on Russian/Or on Spanish politics.” (If Roth hadn’t already led with a Yeats allusion in The Dying Animal, he could have called this one Politics and gotten away with it.) There’s a lot of politics here, but it’s politics as background noise, an insistent hum of anxiety and despair. The 2004 election confirmed the suspicions of Roth’s counterhistorical novel The Plot Against America: A country governed by fear is no country for young men or young women.

All this is atmosphere. But Exit Ghost is mostly a novel of atmospheres—the terror-saturated air of New York, the pervasive disappointment and despair of all good liberals on the morning after the 2004 election, the feeling of approaching death, from natural and unnatural causes, and an uncanny library mustiness, thick with literary and other artistic predecessors. This is a novel dense with references to other late works and people recently and not-so recently departed. Strauss’s exquisite Four Last Songs repeats as a leitmotif, an impromptu and lengthy obituary for George Plimpton breaks into the novel for seven pages right before the dénouement. Zuckerman’s thoughts, too, bristle with allusions to works, all of which make light or heavy use of ghostliness: Eliot’s Four Quartets, Conrad’s The Shadow Line, Hardy’s Return of the Native, Ibsen (although it’s Hedda Gabler and not Ghosts). The effect of all this allusiveness is, as Zuckerman observes of Lonoff’s work, like “the enigmatic reverberations of a gong.”

The reverberations actually create the feeling of an enigma. Nothing in this novel is straightforward; everything works by association, inversion, and buried association. Roth mentions Macbeth but not Hamlet; the stage direction “Exit ghost” appears in both plays. Yet in a novel that asks so many questions about the right moment to die, our duties to the dead and our literary forefathers, and in which Zuckerman describes himself as “losing his mind,” Hamlet is everywhere. The plot of Hamlet turns on usurpation. Of course the young taking over from the old is supposed to be a natural progression, and yet Zuckerman, forever young, still feels that the world of literature, of the women he desires, are all being unfairly taken away from him.

Roth’s Hamletizing works by inversion. The disconcerting spectacle of an older man as action hero, out to save a dead man’s reputation, gets taken over by the force of feelings generated by Zuckerman’s entanglements with characters young enough to be his children. The sexual secret Kliman has discovered about Lonoff—that he had an incestuous affair with his half-sister—is really another screen for Zuckerman’s own anxieties about his posthumous reputation as a novelist and as a man. “Once I was dead who could protect the story of my life from Richard Kliman?” Zuckerman muses. “Wasn’t Lonoff his literary stepping stone to me? And what would my ‘incest’ be? How will I have failed to be the model human being?” Yet Zuckerman’s incest is hiding in plain sight. What else is a 71-year-old man’s desire for a 30-year-old woman? It’s the same sin young Zuckerman stumbled upon in The Ghost Writer. Not only did Zuckerman then imagine himself as Lonoff’s spiritual son, but the family included Amy as well: “Oh father, is this so, were you the lover of this lovesick, worshipful, displaced daughter half your age?”

Still dedicated after all these years to the most irresistible and therefore most dangerous varieties of straight male desire, Roth actually plays it too safe with Exit Ghost, safer than he did in the earlier novel he revisits and tries subtly to revise, as though atoning for Zuckerman’s earlier betrayal of Lonoff—the eavesdropping, the story that Lonoff predicted young Nathan would write about him—by writing the same novel from the point of view of the older writer. Still, it is for purely physical reasons, rather than moral ones, that Zuckerman’s guilt-haunted seduction of Jamie Logan cannot be carried out. Lonoff, on the other hand, that impossible master, was meant to be a figure of what 23-year-old Zuckerman saw as “mad, heroic restraint.” “You cover yourself now,” Lonoff tells the young Amy, when she strips for him. In Roth’s universe, it’s an axiom that sexual restraint is usually madness. If Exit Ghost is indeed, as Roth has hinted, the last of the Zuckerman novels, it’s a pity that he denies Nathan one last chance to be good, sparing him the burden of confronting the madness of restraint for himself. Or perhaps this has been Roth’s point all along: Our final exit resolves nothing, but if we’re lucky, like Zuckerman, we get away unscathed.

Marco Roth is a founding co-editor of n+1 magazine, and the author of The Scientists: A Family Romance.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large