Philip Roth rests so heavily on his laurels you couldn’t lift him with a crane. When I consider how enthralled I was of Portnoy’s Complaint, the Zuckerman novels, and especially his head-spinningly brilliant output in the 90’s, it’s hard for me not to be dismayed by his recent stuff. Granted, I hope I can write like he can when I’m pushing seventy-five, but I also hope I’m not writing the same kind of story for the thirtieth time.
Roth’s newest work, The Humbling differs from most of his other novels in the following ways:
1. The protagonist isn’t Jewish
2. The protagonist isn’t a writer
3. The protagonist isn’t from New Jersey
Simon Axler, a gentile stage actor from Michigan, discovers at age sixty-five that he’s lost his magic. He can’t remember lines, he can’t speak them convincingly, he can’t embody a character, and as a result he breaks down and commits himself to a mental institution. Months later, he returns home and is resigned to languish in his unemployed depression until Pegeen, the daughter of his friends, shows up at his house.
What is a Roth novel without the man having an affair with a woman at least twenty-five years his junior? (Hint: Not this one.) The same tension from The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, etc. plays out in The Humbling with the Rothian man once again thinking, This is going to ultimately destroy me if I don’t stop but sweet Jesus what a piece of ass.
Thank God it at least explores some new territory. The zinger is that Pegeen is a lesbian, or has at least lived as one for the past seventeen years before she meets up with Simon. This goes all sorts of interesting places. Simon recovers his pride, thinking he’s mastering the shift in Pegeen’s sexual preference and thereby reasserting himself as a man. He also plays the Pygmalion, spending piles of money to get her out of her androgenous campwear and into jewelry and heels. Her feminization is so thorough she becomes unrecognizable to her own mother. While it seems that Simon is subjugating Pegeen, though, we later learn he was never necessarily in control. This creepy struggle for gender identity comes to a head one night when, at Pegeen’s suggestion, they bring home a female stranger from the bar.
Personal Fact: 10+ Roth novels later and I’m still not quite comfortable reading the sexual escapades of a geriatric.
This isn’t the sort of story that will make new Roth fans, but the familiar build to disaster does keep the pages turning for the established ones.
Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
Roth doesn’t quite pull off writing as a stage actor, at least for me. I’m no pro by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve done a lot of theater and wonder where Simon’s mentions are of the tedious rehearsals, the energies of different audiences, and various other details that would authenticate him as a stage performer.
Because as it turns out, almost nothing Roth says about Simon’s craft of acting can’t also be applied to the craft of writing fiction. People have always had trouble separating Roth from his protagonists, and this doesn’t help. It’s as if he’s inviting us to assume that many of Axler’s anxieties about losing “the touch” in his art are his own.
So the author enters the novel to a distracting effect. If you like Roth, though, you should be used to this, and I at least found the ideas on this sort of artistic impotence to be disturbing and engaging nonetheless. It also saddens me a bit because I see it happening right there on the page, Exhibit A, in a novel that does familiar gesturing but lacks punch.
This book would have been far worse if it weren’t over so quickly; as it is, it has more than enough substance to fill its 160 pages. I think fans ought to give The Humbling a read as long as they don’t come into it expecting a return to form. There probably won’t ever be one—if we’re to take Simon as an example.