Sam K G's Reviews > Exit Ghost

Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
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Dec 31, 07

bookshelves: fiction
Recommended for: Roth fans
Read in October, 2007

In characteristic Roth style, the novel is filled with references to the great writers. Joseph Conrad features prominently; Zuckerman and Jamie discuss his novella ‘The Shadow Line’ in depth. E.I. Lonoff is often compared with Bernard Malamud, and a small biographical conundrum in the life of Nathaniel Hawthorne receives rather intense scrutiny. Passing references are made to Isaac B. Singer, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and William Faulkner. One of Saul Bellow’s novels is mentioned by title. Of living contemporaries, I caught references to Salman Rushdie and Norman Mailer, though neither in relation to his literature. (I considered the Mailer reference generous, considering his boisterous history on the New York literary scene.) And there is a beautiful anecdote where Amy loses her self-control in the New York Public Library over an exhibit on contemporary American writers.
But Roth does not just drop names. This is not a reading-review list. Every author he mentions has a purpose; each is woven into the narrative. In a recent interview with Newsweek’s David Gates, Roth said, “What I’m doing is bidding adieu to the great writers.” In his interior play ‘He and She,’ Conrad’s phrase “rash moments” receives much focus. Throughout the book, Roth mentions Melville’s remarks on the life of Hawthorne, which ties into Lonoff’s unknown early biography, and then Lonoff’s being compared with Singer (as both being Jewish-American short story writers) in the publications of the Library of America. And near the end of the novel there is an unexpected but wonderfully received panegyric to George Plimpton, given by Zuckerman (or Roth), one feels, as a parting homage to the dead men of a much different literary age.

Roth of course has his favorites, the writers who show up again and again in his works, but the book can still be read in enjoyment without playing literary “Where’s Waldo.”

There is simply no doubt that Roth is a master at the written language. Every sentence and every paragraph is a minor work of art and poetry. And Roth the storyteller has been proved once again to be still at the top of his game. But this novel is more an epilogue to a literary life that a work that can hold its own. This is not a book I would suggest to a first-time Philip Roth reader. While Roth recaps some of Zuckerman’s background, there is simply too much complexity in the character for a summary to do him justice. If you have not lived with Zuckerman from the beginning, have not seen who he was before he grew old and impotent, then this book will lack most of the gravity that it had for me.

What then would I recommend? Start from the beginning. Read ‘Goodbye Columbus’ and then some of the early short stories. Nathan Zuckerman is as much a product of the early Roth as any of the later fiction, so begin where Roth began and work forward. But read Philip Roth. His work will be the literature that is talked about long into our adulthoods.
Find the time. It’s worth it.


(Extracts from an article originally written for the Washington Square News, New York University's Student Newspaper.)

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Dave I loved the Ghost Writer when I encountered it so many years ago, and the Nathan Zuckerman character has, for the most part, maintained his hold on me since. I'm still oddly compelled by him. I have, however, grown weary of Nathan's (Roth's) whiney self-absorption. Yes, it sucks to be incontinent, and it's hell to be impotent. It hurts to know that you can't get the girl anymore. But how long can we bear this caviling about the clouds of urine he leaves in his wake, the stench of his sodden diaper, the flaccidity of his broken member. For God's sake, I have two baby boys who don't create such stains and stenches. Nathan has a penchant for solipsism and exaggeration that really wears after awhile. Oddly, I'm still interested, but I have grown weary of Nathan crying about his damaged self-regard. After all these years, I'd expect a little more wisdom from both Zuckerman and Roth.


message 2: by Sam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sam K G But that is exactly it. He has gained no wisdom. Zuckerman's body is dyeing and because he never found transcendence in life, because he never found a reason to survive beyond his own shallow carnal desires, he has nothing left to give except sadness at the remembrance of things past.
Personally I think that that is Roth's genius and Roth's wisdom. Roth knows that that Zuckerman never found anything beyond, so he doesn't give him anything beyond. He can't. There is nothing to give. For all Zuckerman's intelligence, he is just another man who never got control. And that lesson is wisdom enough for me.


Keith Oh so well put.


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