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Never Say Die

Tom Cooney

Everyman, by Philip Roth, Jonathan Cape, 192 pp, £10, ISBN: 0224078690

Philip Roth once claimed, in his collection of reflective and self-evaluating essays Reading Myself and Others (1975), that his critics saw him as an “irresponsible, conscienceless, unserious” writer, bereft of morals and seeking merely to outrage and shock ‑ a Howard Stern of the literary scene. And, it has to be said, on the surface of things his detractors had a point. From the moment Alex Portnoy rests his weary head on Dr Spielvogel’s couch in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) he unleashes his frustrated howl on the forces of Judaism, sexual propriety and ‑ well, his mother. Consistent and, to give him credit, imaginative scenes of masturbation follow, involving threesomes with Italian hookers and the lover he refers to as the Monkey not far behind. His Jewish-American culture is dismissed, while his unfortunate parents take the heat for nearly all of his deep, unresolved problems.

But in Portnoy Roth was only warming up. The novels that followed, such as My Life as a Man, The Professor of Desire and the Zuckerman books (1974, 1977, 1979-1983) pushed the boundaries of standard conceptions of taste and middle class morality. Women, fathers, sons all felt Roth’s seemingly unending rage at the hypocrisies of Judaism, the Wasp way of life and all that momma’s apple pie and white picket fences were meant to promise. When Zuckerman’s dying father is heard by his wayward, newly successful novelist son calling him a “bastard” with his final breath, we get some sense of how Roth felt he was viewed by society. Then, in 1995, he published what is considered by many champions of his work to be his masterpiece, Sabbath’s Theatre.

Nearly thirty years after Alex Portnoy first began his rant, first began to offend, upset and rage at the shackles of family, society and morality, Roth liberated him, granting him his wish of conscienceless freedom in the electrifying, seedy, pitiful, engrossing form of Mickey Sabbath. Sabbath lives beyond the boundaries of society; death has set him loose from his family, sex is his only modus vivendi. The novel culminates with Sabbath urinating on the grave of his dead lover, a voluptuous Serb named Drenka, married in life to her hardworking husband, yet married in her truest, most obscene expression of freedom to Sabbath. And it was here that a change in Roth came to the fore. Sabbath, as would have been expected, was not urinating on society - as so many of Roth’s characters could be said to have done. Rather he was pissing on death: death, which had taken his family, his first wife, his lover; death which would take him soon too, but not before age and decay would deprive him of his only weapon in the fight to stamp his mark on this lawless life he has led ‑ his libido. However, this time it wasn’t a father dying, as in Zuckerman Unbound (1981) or his, to that date, most moving and gentle work, Patrimony (1991) ‑ but his main character. At the age of sixty-two, Roth had decided to face his mortality through Mickey Sabbath. There was a new war to be waged.

And yet, rather than go on the attack, to hit the grim reaper with his uncanny wit, his vicious rhetoric, his righteous anger, Roth now looked back. His American Trilogy of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain (1997, 1998, 2000) saw him providing his take on America in the latter half of the twentieth century. Having looked inward throughout most of his literary career, through the use of alter egos and a psychiatrist’s chair, he now looked beyond his inner conflicts and provided this stunning trio of works, doused in nostalgia and laced with the insights of a man who had spent the greater part of forty years looking for something better in the heart of his nation. Roth was writing his love letter to America. But love is never a straightforward matter.

Sex, death, America, Jewishness: the four cornerstones of Roth’s thematic landscape. The Dying Animal and The Plot against America (2001, 2004) continued to dissect and enliven theses panoramic themes, and at times to fuse them into one cohesive whole. So what lay ahead for Roth? What else could he do? The answer, he told us, was his great work on the increasingly dominant theme in his thinking ‑ his own mortality. Speaking to the New York Times, Roth described the blow he felt upon discovering that he and his peers were as susceptible to death as those generations that went before them:

[Death] was something I never expected ¬¬– that my friends would die … you won’t ever die, and your children certainly will never die before you. That’s the deal, that’s the contract. But in this contract nothing is written about your friends so when they start dying, it’s a gigantic shock.

This kick in the teeth, the realisation that there was small print he had chosen to ignore when signing the initial contract, is what has led to the latest addition to his prolific canon of work ‑ Everyman.

The title of this short ‑ especially by Roth’s standards ‑book is a direct reference to the line of English morality plays performed during the fifteenth century, in many cases in no less forbidding a place than a graveyard, and in particular to the classic play itself, entitled Everyman, which dates to roughly 1485 and deals with the protagonist, the Everyman of the title, being visited by Death and held to account before the court of final judgment. Roth had already made clear long before its final publication that his book was to be about death, death and death. And yet it was hard not to wonder, to dare to ask this undoubted master of the modern American word how such a topic could be dealt with in less than two hundred pages. How has Roth managed to produce one of his shortest ever novels on the greatest theme of all?

Fittingly enough, the novel opens in a cemetery, specifically at a funeral. This mournful setting frames the burial of Roth’s central character ‑  the lifeless, nameless Everyman. We quickly learn that among the attendance are his three children ‑ two sons who have never forgiven him for leaving their mother and Nancy, his devoted and loving daughter from his second marriage ‑ as well as Phoebe, his second wife, and his successful, loyal brother, Howie. His first and third wives are mentioned yet are not present. Nancy makes a speech, as does Howie, then they all pour dirt on his coffin before leaving to resume their lives. Roth’s character is immediately set up as an Everyman, a normal, average human being, and this distant approach to a funeral which mirrors so many others and evokes little emotion in all but the closest family members acts as his opening statement of intent in addressing the horrific ordinariness and familiarity of death.

That was the end. No special point had been made ‑Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his, routine, ordinary ‑ no more or less interesting than any of the others.

And thus Roth begins his treatise on mortality. Starting at the end, at his central character’s funeral, he then heads back to the beginning, to the nameless protagonist’s first brush with death, with the realisation of life’s finiteness, when, aged nine, he is brought to hospital for a hernia operation and witnesses the death of a young boy in the bed next to him. From here on in, Roth links his main character’s experiences of life and death with his visits to the hospital. Indeed, the entire structure of the narrative is held together by a framework of hospital visits, tracing the gradual weakening of the body by nature’s wicked ways. Everyman’s lifespan is punctuated by operations to insert renal stents, by carotid artery surgery, by a lifesaving operation after a silent heart attack. As he ages, it becomes clear to the protagonist that his, like so many other personal biographies, have by life’s end “become identical with their medical biographies”. A life of love, affairs, three marriages, three children, a successful career in advertising, has eventually been brought down to staving off death, to awaiting the next medical emergency, so that by the time he reaches his mid-fifties “eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story”.

While the novel is built around the framework of these hospital stays, sometimes the narrative scaffolding seems insufficiently strong to support the deeper levels of Roth’s otherwise finely constructed discourse on man’s mortality. Too often he dives head first into lengthy accounts of the medical procedures his Everyman has to undergo; and while it is clear he has brushed up on his medical terminology, it is not altogether obvious what purpose it is meant to serve. It is already apparent that his character’s life is to be traced along the line of his various health scares, where each stopover signifies a weakening of the body in the futile fight against ageing. Highlighting the complexity and intricacy of a medical procedure once in the course of the novel arguably foregrounds the body’s susceptibility, its relative powerlessness in its struggle to protect the soul. But Roth repeatedly ventures into the specialised language of medicine, diluting the characteristic strength of his prose. At one stage he writes:

Then in 1998, when his blood pressure began to mount and would not respond to changes in medication, the doctors determined that he had an obstruction of his renal artery, which fortunately had resulted so far in only a minor loss of kidney function, and he entered the hospital for a renal artery angioplasty ‑ the problem was resolved with the insertion of a stent that was transported on a catheter manoeuvred up through a puncture in the femoral artery and through the aorta to the occlusion.

Further on we read:

he was briefly knocked out on an operating table while a defibrillator was permanently inserted as a safeguard against the new development that endangered his life and that along with the scarring of the posterior wall of his heart and his borderline ejection fraction made him a candidate for a fatal cardiac arrhythmia.

Short of demonstrating Roth’s research to have been as meticulous as ever, these passages do little for the overall text and indeed provide the few, albeit oft repeated, passages that allow the reader to skim without losing sight of any of Everyman’s major themes or arguments.

In between the medical flag-posts, he fleshes out the life of his Everyman. Like so many of Roth’s characters, he has been raised in Jewish New Jersey, where his father owns a jewellery shop in which he and his brother help out diligently and enthusiastically. He marries, enters the world of advertising ‑ choosing the secure career path over his deeper wish to be an artist ‑ marries, has two boys, falls in love with Phoebe, leaves his family and incurs the wrath of his sons. His second marriage produces a daughter, Nancy, certainly one of the most favourably characterised women in any of Roth’s books: sweet, loyal, decent, forgiving and kind, she is unfortunately also one of the least complex women in his oeuvre, raising again the suggestion that Roth and women don’t mix easily. His second marriage flounders when he falls for one of the models for an ad he is shooting, a woman twenty-six years his junior. By the end of his life, with his third marriage also dead and buried, he retires to a New Jersey retirement home in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, where he seeks to indulge his passion for art and ease gently into old age. It is a normal life, Roth would have us believe: his Everyman “was reasonable and kindly, an amicable, moderate, industrious man, as everyone who knew him well would probably agree”. “Most people,” our protagonist believes, “would have thought of him as square.”

This, however, is Philip Roth we are talking about and Roth does not do square. From other perspectives what we have is a man who has been an outright success in his professional career, a man who has cavorted around the Caribbean and Paris with his young model lover, a man whose sons despise him, who ends up “unbearably alone” and lost in a mundane, sterile retirement home, desperate for a last fling, a last stroke of life’s scintillating hand, a touch to reawaken him (as we shall see later). Roth knows as we do that it is death and not life that is normal. As the protagonist acknowledges, you are “born to live and die instead”. If anything, his character is trying to achieve a sense of normality but life keeps getting in the way ‑ be it sex, money or appendicitis. That, it seems is the real horror, that death, for all its cruelty, is so ordinary, and yet so repellent to the beating heart and pulsing mind of a man like Everyman who has become swept up in life’s fragile beauty.

While Roth has for some time been pondering his personal mortality, it is also clear that since September 11th, 2001, America has become more aware of its vulnerability as a nation. Roth is too good a writer and too shrewd an observer of humanity simply to tap into the potentially bottomless pool of 9/11’s significances in order to drill home some facile point about life and death. However, he is also too good a writer, and specifically too good an American writer, to ignore it. And he does convey his compatriots’ new sense of frailty and fear, their sense of weakness, of being at the mercy of a power they cannot control, this sense of both fright and fight that has gripped the US since that morning five years ago. Roth’s protagonist packs up and flees New York for the New Jersey coastline after the attacks, back to his childhood holiday destination, back to safety “beside the beautiful sea and away from the threat of Al Qaeda”, telling his daughter: “I’ve got a deep-rooted fondness for survival. I’m getting out of here.” America, like Roth, is facing up to the fact that it has no control over its destiny, that death may choose its own time of arrival. Everyman is a story about one man’s relationship with his own mortality, but also a reflection of a nation that has changed immeasurably since 1991.

Just as in his Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral, Roth harks back to a safer world, a place and time where life was something you looked forward to and planned for, not something you had to cling onto, had to protect in the best way you knew how. At one stage, while being operated on and under a local anaesthetic, the protagonist remembers working in his father’s jewellery store, calming his mind with thoughts of a safer, simpler time, In moving to the tranquil retirement home, our Everyman is looking for the sense of happiness and joy he has attached to his childhood memories. However, he remains restless and dissatisfied in his new environment. He sets up an art class which he teaches weekly to his fellow community members, but this too fails to give him the satisfaction he seeks. Instead he is surrounded by people in the last stage of life, away from the dynamism and creativity of the advertising world he once bestrode so confidently. While Everyman may lack the outward rage and bitterness which have become part of the Roth trademark, there is still a contained frustration and anger at life’’s futility, at the ruthless pace of ageing and the inevitable approach of the end. In one passage, one of the protagonist’s “students” breaks down in his bedroom and articulates the fury that also lies inside the main character but which Roth will not allow him, in his “ordinariness”, to express himself. “It’s so shameful,” she says, “the dependence, the helplessness, the isolation, the dread – it’s all so ghastly and shameful. The pain makes you frightened of yourself. The utter otherness of it is awful.” There is no beauty in ageing, no solace to be found in the accumulated wisdom, in reaching an age where one has seen it all, done it all. Ageing is a bitch and death is its final insult, its final humiliation. “They were all embarrassed by what they had become,” writes Roth.

In an interview published in The Guardian in 2005, Roth remarked that “it no longer feels like a great injustice that I have to die”. And yet there is a sense of anger, of deep-rooted humiliation, which propels this novel forward. There is no solace to be found here. Roth knows we can’t defeat death but that does not lead to acceptance. The fellow resident who has expressed to Everyman her pain and shame kills herself a week after her outburst. This choosing of one’s own time to die seems to be the only “victory” on offer.

Nor is there any consolation to be had from belief in God or an afterlife. To Everyman, “religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish”. The life he has lived, like those of most people, is made up of joy, pain, love, heartache, success and failure, motion and change, leading to one final fruitless confrontation with morality. “Old age is a battle ‑ an unrelenting battle ‑ writes Roth towards the novel’s end, a battle he believes we have to face alone without a religious support system.

The relative shortness of Roth’s latest fiction should not tempt us to believe he is either running out of ideas or slowing down in old age. Here, in a compact, tight, beautifully structured text he continues to prod and poke at life’s unfairness and does so with all the force and dignity you would expect from an American master. The great themes of America, religion and identity come together again as Roth refuses to go gently into the night. Yet would it be a Roth novel if there was not a hint of the erotic about it, even the minutest nod towards probably his most revisited theme of all ‑ sex? Roth explored the relationship between sex and death in Sabbath’s Theatre, with Mickey Sabbath fornicating, masturbating, seducing, offending as if his life depended on it ‑ which, to him, it did. As far as Sabbath is concerned, loss of libido means the loss of everything. As the critic Debra Shostak observed: “Without desire there is no self.” Through Sabbath, Roth chose to fight the inevitable with the one thing he has been fascinated and tortured by above all else throughout his literary career, “to metaphorically fuck death in order to retain a sense of self, to regain a point in living. Hilarious, heartbreaking and utterly obscene, this was arguably Roth’s finest hour.

Now, with this new novel ‑ inspired solely by and revolving around the end of life ‑ Roth once again paces the battlefield between sex and death. In the novel’s most striking scene, which takes place at a beach resort on the Jersey shore, the nameless protagonist makes his last stand. Having observed a beautiful woman – “a tiny creature perfectly formed” ‑ who jogs past the bench where he rests after his daily walk, he finally decides to act on his desire, to try to rouse the erotic in him that caused such chaos in his personal life. He calls her over and engages in small talk and finds that his desire completely outweighs the depth of their connection: “His excitement was disproportionate to anything that had happened or that could possibly happen. He had not just to hide his hunger; so as not to go mad he had to annihilate it.” He fails and in an almost unbearably embarrassing moment moves in for the kill: “How game are you?” he asks. She takes his number, humours him and jogs on never to reappear before his bench.

Here we see the death of the erotic life, the defeat of old age by virile, nubile youth. Just as Sabbath ends up lost, alone, heartbroken and defeated by investing his soul in sex, so Roth’s Everyman is humiliated, patronised by a woman at the peak of her sexuality. At one stage he “feels himself growing hard in his pants unbelievably, magically quickly, as though he were fifteen”. And this is it ‑ the lustful mind, our erotic desires will have us believe we are fifteen forever. However, the protagonist is not fifteen but rather a sad, lonely, seedy old man, too old to offend, too harmless to induce anything but pity. During his affair with the twenty-four-year-old model Merete, who will become his third wife, he realises the futility of fighting age with sex, but chooses to ignore the epiphany. Thinking of her wild, sexual abandon, Roth writes that “only in passing did it occur to him that it might be somewhat delusional at the age of fifty to think that he could find a hole that would substitute for everything else”. Age erodes the erotic eventually and the failure of man is his refusal to accept this. Roth, who allowed Sabbath to fight the passing of time with such violence, here has his Everyman concede defeat with a whimper. It seems as if finally the spirit of Portnoy, Zuckerman and Sabbath has met its match.

While it is reasonable to expect more literary output from Roth, there is also something about Everyman that suggests a sense of finality. If this is to be Roth’s last offering, is it to be the work that sends him flying across the line to claim the title of America’s greatest living writer? While the novel has its obvious flaws ‑ the excessive medical language, the cardboard cut-out characters that are his daughter Nancy and his mistress and later wife, Merete ‑ it still has earned the right to be talked about as one of Roth’s great works. After a first reading the reader could be excused for finding it too short, for feeling it does not go deeply enough into the heartache of ageing disgracefully, for its weak depiction of women. However, second time around it becomes clear that while Everyman is not a masterpiece, it is still a book of serious quality. No one captures America quite like Roth, no one invests the erotic with the same force, no one excuses, forgives or condemns like him. Eschewing the sentimentality which the subject of death and dying might seem to demand Roth focuses instead on the ordinariness, the factuality of dying. And while at times he might seem to go too far along the track of this factuality, he has none the less constructed something marvellous, a novel which makes no apology for wanting to live, for fearing death, for revealing how vulnerable we are when faced with the inevitable, for showing that there is still something extraordinary in the ordinary. Speaking of his own eventual funeral, Roth remarked that if anyone were to show up, “they will probably be screaming at the casket”. Yet as long as Roth is alive and writing, life, it seems, will still give him, and us, something to rage against, something to scream about and something to live for.

 

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