When last October’s Atlantic hit the doorstep, I whisked past the cover displaying Bill Clinton’s unsightly mug and scoured the index for something to banish sight of him. What to my eyes should appear but the lead-in for a withering review by Christopher Hitchens of Philip Roth’s latest novel, Exit Ghost. I’ve read Hitchens for years in the magazine, at times enjoying him but finding his superiority mostly tiresome. I shelved the issue, waiting until I’d read the novel before facing Hitchens’ problems with it.
After carefully reading ”Zuckerman Undone”, I most assuredly disagree with Hitchens. In fact, it feels as though we read two different novels. He sees
…that Roth has degraded the Eros-Thanatos dialectic of some of his earlier work and is now using his fiction, first to kill off certain characters and to shoot the wounded, and second to give himself something to masturbate about.
I found Exit Ghost to be a meditation, not only upon death or sex or even upon growing older, but on the persistent difficulty that a writer must have in being lumped always into the same basket as his words. Maybe I haven’t paid due attention to this before when reading Roth. His mixture of humor and warmth have drawn me for years. It seems to me with this reading that Roth is saying, loudly and forcefully, that no one can ever come close to knowing the writer as person by knowing the writer’s words. The writer is the ghost, the pulled back observer who may seem to imbue everything with himself but who doesn’t exist off of the page.
this scene of dialogue unspoken recorded what hadn’t been done and was an aid to nothing, alleviated nothing, achieved nothing, and yet, just as on election night, it had seemed terribly necessary to write the instant I came through the door, the conversations she and I don’t have more affecting even than the conversations we do have, and the imaginary ”She” vividly at the middle of her character as the actual ”she” will never be.
But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, 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.
I’ve always loved Roth’s work because it feels as though he’s playing with his readers, stirring them up with frankly sexual dialogue and unflattering characterizations. But I’ve never found the self loathing that others who read him have. There’s loathing aplenty in Exit Ghost, for overbearing celebrity hounds, for the cell phone ethic of relentless immediacy, for Bushies, and for brutality. For the literary life- reading, writing, and the attempt at self riddance – Exit Ghost is solid praise and understanding for those ”very, very few” who allow themselves to be fully drawn only on paper.