Exit Ghost is the ninth Nathan Zuckerman novel and, according to Philip Roth and his publishers, it will be the last. We have seen Zuckerman as a young author in his mid-twenties, anxious to be taken seriously, enamored with the writing lifestyle of Lonoff, a forgotten Jewish short story author. We have seen him in his forties, sexually active, sexually obsessed. And the last we saw of him was throughout Roth's great ‘90s trilogy, the 'American trilogy,' where he acted less as a protagonist and more as an observer, a chronicler of American life during some of its most turbulent times. In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman is old, in his seventies, and his health is failing. No longer sex-obsessed, no longer the distant observer of vice and virtue, Zuckerman is what he is - an old man, a tired man, a sick man, a hopeful man and, perhaps, a man still capable of love.
From American Pastoral onwards, it has been known that Nathan Zuckerman is impotent and incontinent. Roth has portrayed his character - some would say alter ego - as accepting of this debilitation as a means to become a person solely focused upon his writing, a creature of work and nothing else. But in Exit Ghost, it seems that enough is enough. Zuckerman travels to New York for an experimental, hardly guaranteed operation to help alleviate some of his troubles. Initially, he is happy - 'The procedure the next morning took fifteen minutes. So simple! A wonder! Medical magic!' - but soon he realizes that by trying to take back his life, life has taken him back, also. He sees an old flame, a brief movement of the heart from back in the 1950s, Amy Bellette, once a beautiful woman from The Ghost Writer and now a frail elderly woman dying of brain cancer. More than that, he impulsively agrees to swap his home in New England with an apartment in New York, agreement coming from the size of Jamie Logan's breasts and the whiteness of her skin. So, Jamie and Billy, her husband, are set to move into Zuckerman's home, and Zuckerman is ready to move into theirs - him to recapture something he thought he didn't want and can't properly define, them to move away from the constant terror of becoming involved in another September 11.
But Zuckerman, beyond this restlessness, is restless still. After eleven years of virtually unbroken solitude, he is ill equipped to deal with the difficulties of New York City life - mobile phones, the massed throngs of people, billboards, signs, newspapers, magazines. It is too much, an information overload, and on top of that, his operation seems unsuccessful. Kliman, an ambitious would-be biographer of Lonoff, appears to harass Zuckerman, and Amy Bellette, her mind fogged from cancer, tells stories of his life and hers that may or may not have been true.
Zuckerman, at the end of his career, forgetful, poor in health, could be forgiven if he wished to indulge in memory and self-congratulation. Oddly, this is something that is not done throughout the novel. Instead, almost all of the other characters say their piece on what they perceive literature to be. They are writers, all, and it goes without saying that they are readers. The prime importance of writing is given as - the writing. It is not the man which makes the writing. It is not the woman. It is the writing itself. Does a great scandal in the author's life change the impact, power, necessity or art of the works they spend their lives writing? Is the revelation of closet homosexuality or marital violence or some other secret enough to overshadow the author's true work? Zuckerman seems to think that the audience, that is the readers, believe yes, whereas writers themselves say no. He argues passionately for writing to be taken for what it is, and not what it is not.
This concept of writing being more important than the author's life is played out with some poignancy through Zuckerman's interaction with Jamie Logan. He is enamored with her to the point of creating elaborate conversations between them, conversations where they argue sex, life, writing, reading. They converse with Zuckerman as 'He' and Jamie as 'She'. Invariably, Zuckerman comes across in these dialogues as witty and intelligent, but there is a sadness to them that allows for no physical consummation. For one, the dialogues are completely made up, extending from the awkward conversations he actually has with Jamie. But more importantly, Zuckerman is impotent, both physically and in his heart. He wants to love but he cannot, not properly. A man who loves, no matter his inability for true consummation, would love with all that he can, every aspect of himself that still functions as it should. But Zuckerman instead falls back on his writing, scribbling endless scenes where he is, in fiction, everything he is not, in reality. The He/She dialogues indicate that Zuckerman has only his writing, now. He lusts impotently for Jamie; all he can do is write a scene where she is interested, enthusiastic, understanding, empathic. He can't write a sex scene, because it would be dishonest to what he can, as a man in his seventies suffering from incontinence and impotency, accomplish.
There is a sad tenderness to all this longing through words. Previously he has wanted to immediately tear off clothes and have wild, passionate intercourse with women - The Anatomy Lesson being a great example of this - but in Exit Ghost, Zuckerman wishes merely for another shared glance. Another talk. Another chance to see. For all that the characters demand readers to focus solely on the writing, Zuckerman shows what happens when this admonition is actually followed - a life that is not a life, love that is not love. Given a young, attentive, interesting, articulate woman and with his own wit, with his intelligence, with his stature, with his reputation as a writer, how sad is it that all he can do is turn to his papers and write, write, write.
Exit Ghost is to be the last novel featuring Zuckerman. And yet, the loose end of Lonoff's possible incestuous affair as a child, of Amy Bellette's brain cancer, of Jamie and Billy's marriage, of Kliman's biography - none of them are resolved, all are left dangling as the novel closes. If this is to be the last novel of Zuckerman, then what are we left with? An escape, an exit, an allusion to Hamlet where Zuckerman is Hamlet's father, but who is Hamlet himself? Perhaps Philip Roth will write the next Zuckerman novel as Zuckerman has written so many other novels, a fitting conclusion to one of the more enduring literary creations of the last fifty years or so.
Much has been made about the connections between Zuckerman and Roth. Is Roth Zuckerman? Is Zuckerman Roth? This novel is, largely, an answer to that, and the answer is this: Does it matter? If Zuckerman is a replica of Roth, mimicking exactly his mannerisms, eroticism's, witticisms, then so what? If Zuckerman is not, then so what? It should not and does not matter how similar they are, what matters is the writing itself. The novel should stand, or fall, on its own merits and not the personal merits of the author.
For all the questions Exit Ghost raises, that so few of them are answered is beside the point. It is the unasked questions which receive the fullest answers, and in that there is satisfaction. Closure is not necessary, dark secrets are not necessary. A writer's life does not have to be as exciting as their writing. The resounding answer is that it is the writing itself that matters, and Roth shows that in Exit Ghost. A fitting conclusion, then.