Oh Philip Roth, why can’t I quit you?
I like his work, I really do, but I have to lower my expectations. He’s written, like, 600 novels so I guess I have to learn that everything can’t be “The Plot Against America” or “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
I’m coming across more things like “The Humbling” lately, and it’s making me question the critical tongue baths he gets for every sentence he writes.
Take, for instance “Everyman.” This 2007 novel has all the themes Roth likes to explore, either because he’s a chronicler of the human experience or because he’s a filthy, sex-obsessed pig. There’s growing old, there’s sex, there’s death, there’s regret, love and probably a few other things I’m forgetting. Wait, maybe I should refine my opening paragraph to say every Roth book is the same.
Anyway, the antihero of “Everyman” is an unnamed self-obsessed pig. (Where did I read that phrase recently?) We open with his funeral, learn of his estrangement from all but one of his children, his attachments to other people and see his older brother stunned at his death, the only true mourner. Then we go back to the beginning and close with his death. It’s the human existence distilled into 182 pages.
There are so many interesting concepts here that feel unexplored. The book feels like an outline for a longer novel. There’s the main character’s obsession with time and the way he clings to permanent things like diamonds and to a watch that was his father’s. How his obsession about death makes him do stupid things that push away the people in his life who love him. How he knows he’s made a mess of his life, yet refuses to depart a moment too soon.
I found myself shaking my head at many parts, especially the sex scenes. It makes me think Roth has been in his ivory tower a little too long. Where, I’d like to ask him, are the 19-year-old nubile girls who think nothing of having loud, disruptive sex on the floor of their 50-year-old married boss’ office during the work day? How does anything get done (other than the secretary I mean)? Later, he has a sexual relationship with his much-younger physical therapist who’s helping him recover from heart surgery. It’s just silly. If this is everyman’s experience, I’ve been cheated. I give Roth credit, though, for waiting until about the halfway mark before drawing from the well of sodomy. You’d think that would be a dry hole for all the times he’s explored it. (Of course, I’m writing metaphorically.)
But the novel becomes a litany of illnesses and drawn-out explanations of medical procedures used to fix them. At times I felt I were trapped on a plane next to an old man who seemed nice enough at takeoff but wouldn’t shut up about his ailments so you have to pretend you’re dead just to get him to stop talking to you. (Don’t pretend you haven’t done that, too.)
So, another Roth disappointment, yeah. But I haven’t even really touched his greatest work yet, so I’m not giving up. Maybe it’s just too soon after “The Human Stain.” Maybe we just need a break. I’ll be back, Philip. “American Pastoral” and “Sabbath’s Theatre” await. They will call me back and I will heed their call.