I picked this up at the local library on a whim, having first read it was published in 2007. (It’s very likely that I read the same copy of the book back then.) I was seeking the pleasures and comforts of effortlessly beautiful prose, and Roth just about never lets me down in that regard.
Philip Roth has been in my personal pantheon of favorite writers my entire adult life, though as with favorite bands I seem to prefer the earlier stuff better than the later works. For me his peak was Portnoy’s Complaint, the Zuckerman novels, and the metafiction of the lates 80s and early 90s. I know his most accomplished work would come after, but there is an energy and daring in these works – and a honing of craft and vision – that still speaks to me potently. The notoriety of Portnoy forced Roth to consider the relationship between the author’s life and his writing, or at least how the public perceived that relationship. For a while Nathan Zuckerman was an alter-ego trying to contend with the same headaches and misapprehensions with his own reading public, then shifted from alter-ego to Roth’s devil’s advocate (or just plain devil) in The Facts and The Counterlife, a character that seemed to actively defy his maker, until finally Roth decided to up his game further and make Philip Roth the protagonist of his fiction for a while. For a nice long stretch it seemed Roth the author was finding new and entertaining ways to give the middle finger to his more simpleminded critics, and was having a ball doing so.
Exit Ghost is the last novel to feature Nathan Zuckerman and the title is richly allusive of what it promises. The phrase is a reference to Hamlet and the stage direction Roth personally found enchanting, as well as a reference to the first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer, Exit Ghost serving as a sequel of sorts to that work. The two main characters Zuckerman encounters in The Ghost Writer, author E.I. Lonoff and his comely young student Amy Bellette, figure prominently in Exit Ghost: Lonoff is dead and mostly forgotten by the public and literati; Bellette is fragile and suffers from a brain tumor, but still doggedly defends what is left of Lonoff’s legacy.
Set in late 2004, Nathan Zuckerman had become a hermit in the countryside for over a decade when circumstances conspire to bring him back to New York for a last literary and erotic adventure. He encounters a trio of young literary aspirants, one of whom he wants to seduce, another who wants to write a biography of Lonoff that will reveal the author’s great shameful secret.
In many ways, Exit Ghost has the same feel as the novels that compose the Zuckerman trilogy proper: The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Bound, The Anatomy Lesson, and the epilogue The Prague Orgy. The events in all these books occur in a very short timeframe, Nathan tries to take control of an unexpected situation and finds himself at least slightly out of his depth, there is a dash of menace and danger, and the story ends with Zuckerman returned to his status quo, somewhat humbled by his foolishness. There is a picaresque aspect to these novels, which can’t be said of the notable Zuckerman novels in between, such as The Human Stain. Despite the similarities, the one notable difference between Exit Ghost and the earlier trilogy is in tone. Nathan is nearing the end of his life and admits to slowly losing some of his faculties. The earlier novels’ madcap vigor are now tempered by a sense of elegy and the confusion of someone very intimate with his own mortality, something again not evident in the midpoint Zuckerman books.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t comic moments in Exit Ghost. There are wonderful passages about the way cel phones have taken over everyday life, as well as bemusement at how young liberals are stupefied and enraged by the unexpected victory of George Bush in the 2004 presidential election. A decade later, with the ascendancy of iPhones and Androids and the Trump regime, the resonance of those particular aspects of the book has grown and deepened in unexpected ways.
Equally surprising, Roth’s handling of the author and his work, of the line between fiction and biography, is just as powerful and as fresh as in the earlier books. After all, one may assume that the issue can be argued and played out for only so long before it becomes boring and repetitive, especially when one has as strong a stance – and has worked through as many metafictive variations – as Roth has. But in Exit Ghost and the dilemma of Lonoff, he has found new angles to approach the long-familiar issue, playing upon the notion of authorial inspiration and the assumption of other people’s sins in one’s own writing. This should not be a surprising notion: murder runs rampant in literature but few of their authors have actually committed the deed (I hope). Bret Easton Ellis has never been accused of being a serial killer. But while this example is so obvious as to seem fatuous, the attribution of a fictional character’s sexual peccadilloes to an author is much more likely – Roth can certainly attest to that. Zuckerman claims this is due to the lack of imagination by certain kinds of critics, whose own shortcomings translates to an inability to allow for a robust imagination in the creation of fiction by others. All things considered, I find that answer compelling, though what one can do about it is not clear. Zuckerman remains true to himself to the end, but his course of action may not suit everyone.
If there is any flaw in Exit Ghost, it is the dialogues Zuckerman writes as a two-person play. It is meant to show the intense infatuation he holds for Jamie Logan, the young woman he wants to seduce, but it simply falls flat as a narrative device as well as actual dialogue. It’s impossible to read these passages without comparing it to Roth’s metafictive dialogue novel Deception, which is far more clever and insightful and realistic and lyrical. Maybe we are meant to think that Zuckerman is so reduced in his literary powers that he can only muster up weak sauce Mary Sue fanfic to channel his feelings for Jamie. Whatever the case, it is easy to imagine Exit Ghost being improved by just cutting all those sequences out.
Despite that shortcoming, I still found Exit Ghost a satisfying and provocative read, perhaps even more so now than I did a decade ago. It makes me want to read still more Roth in the near future, as this reminder of his literary power makes me want to bask in it even more.