January 17, 2008
This is Philip Roth’s 28th novel and the ninth featuring his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Since Roth will become 75 in March, it is understandable that he is preoccupied with the frailties of old age. He is well into what Erik Erikson called the eighth stage of psychosocial development, during which the individual either achieves integrity or succumbs to despair. Acceptance of one’s life and thinking about it positively leads to satisfaction with self and to accepting the inevitability of death. According to Erikson, failure to accept the significance of our contribution and the inability to come to terms with death leads to despair.
Erikson’s powerful insights help us to understand Roth’s latest book. In October 2004, Zuckerman, who lives alone in the Berkshires, comes to New York to seek treatment for incontinence from prostate surgery, a procedure that has left him impotent. In a restaurant, he sees Amy Bellette, whom he introduced to his readers in The Ghost Writer (1979). In that book, Zuckerman was visiting E.I. Lonoff, a writer he admired, and found Amy there, living with Lonoff. Zuckerman fancied her as Anne Frank and lusted after her. Now, she is an old woman, recovering from a brain operation, and Lonoff is dead.
Bellette is being bothered by a “colossal pest” named Richard Kliman, who wants to write a biography of Lonoff; she asks Zuckerman for help in preventing Kliman from achieving his objective.
A related plot element is Zuckerman’s impulsive response to an ad in The New York Review of Books, in which a couple seeks to trade their apartment in Manhattan for a country abode for one year. He meets the couple to discuss the possibility of the swap and is immediately attracted to Jamie, the 31-year-old wife. She and her husband, Billy, invite Zuckerman to watch the 2004 election returns and are frustrated by the results.
The two strands in the story are united by the fact that Kliman, Jamie, and Billy are friends. That is how Kliman finds out about Zuckerman’s presence in New York. He pushes Zuckerman not only to secure Amy’s cooperation but also to get Zuckerman himself to assist in the preparation of Lonoff’s biography. Kliman claims that he has an unfinished manuscript by Lonoff that reveals an incestuous relationship between Lonoff and his sister. This has an ominous ring of truth since Lonoff is generally thought to be a fictional representation of Bernard Malamud, whose daughter in her autobiography accused her father of molesting her.
Roth’s superlative literary skills enable him to present these tangled links vividly and realistically. As is the case in all his writing, Roth grabs the reader’s interest and never lets go until the very end. It is clear why he has won so many prizes and why he is often mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate.
He is America’s greatest Jewish writer, and many would contend that he is America’s leading writer. Critical writing about Roth is overwhelming. There are more than 15 books and many articles that analyze his work. He does have his critics; some call Roth a self-hating Jew who is overly preoccupied with sex. Some of his work is undoubtedly raunchy, foulmouthed, and vulgar. But no one can deny his amazing versatility, his creative skill, his remarkable introspection, and his substantial character portrayal. All these talents are richly portrayed in this new book, which brings to a close the story of Nathan Zuckerman.