In preparation for reviewing The Humbling, Philip Roth's latest novel, I took the time to go back and read a selection of his works from what has long been referred as his late, great period. Arguably this phase of his writing career began back in 1986 with The Counterlife, a post-modern exercise on identity and family that remains virtually unparalleled in contemporary American fiction. Roth was fifty-three when The Counterlife was published, but it is for the novels he wrote in his sixties that he is most often praised. American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain are grouped together as 'the American trilogy,' a loosely connected trio of novels sharing two major aspects – firstly their narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, and secondly their wide-ranging critique of post-WWII American history, the country's social and sexual mores, and the intellectual and artistic development of its citizens. Roth's novels in his seventies (and he is now almost 77) have largely turned away from the broad spread of America and settled into a quieter routine, one less ambitious in geographic and historical scope but no less ambitious for the themes and questions his works raise: namely, how to deal with death, and how to cope with dying.
Roth's prose has become simpler and his page counts have decreased. Where once he wrote muscular, energetic sentences that attempted to capture the vitality and essence of his time and his protagonists, now he is content to pare down his vocabulary in an effort to reach the core of things. Compare this sentence from Sabbath's Theatre, Roth's wildly energetic novel of sexual insatiability from 1995 -
“Now, Sabbath did not swallow these stories he continually heard characterizing New York as Hell, first, because every great city is Hell; second, because if you weren't interested in the gaudier abominations of mankind, what were you doing there in the first place?; and third, because the people he heard telling these stories – the wealthy of Madamaska Falls, the tiny professional elite and the elderly who'd retired to their summer homes there – were the last people on earth you'd believe about anything.”with this sentence from The Humbling, published 14 years later:
“When you're playing the role of somebody coming apart, it has organization and order; when you're observing yourself coming apart, playing the role of your own demise, that's something else, something awash with terror and fear.” The tone of Roth's writing has shifted, his interest rapidly narrowed, and the very words themselves circle inward rather than outward, tightening their grip on the soul of a man rather than the soul of a nation. In both novels, the sentences quoted are typical of the feel of each piece, one celebrating vibrancy in the face of encroaching death, the other recognising terror and fear as what was once encroaching is now instead standing face-to-face.
In The Humbling, Simon Axler has lost his 'magic' – his ability to act onstage. Overnight, it seemed, his talent and confidence had deserted him, and all that was left was nothing. “Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail.” Axler is a man for whom his acting ability is everything, and without it there isn't anything for him to hold on to. In the space of pages, Axler's wife, Victoria (so paper thin as a character it is surprising Roth bothered to give her a name), is gone, he has become a laughingstock thanks to a disastrous performance at the Kennedy Center, and he has checked himself in to Hammerton, a nearby psychiatric hospital.
It is customary for Roth when building the characters he will spend the remainder of his novel tearing down (The Humbling is by no means his first novel in which the protagonist loses everything, or near enough to it as doesn't matter), to spend a significant amount of time creating a rich background history. Consider The Human Stain's Coleman Silk's boxing matches as a child, or American Pastoral's Seymour Levov developing relationship with his pageant bride, his basketball games during WWII, or the phenomenal passage where the creation of a leather glove is lovingly reproduced. These sequences serve not as filler but as a way for Roth to explore the social and economic strata of American life, the ups and downs of domesticity and wealth, the idle pleasures and foolish prejudices that come from being the most powerful nation in the world for half a century. They add to the lives of their characters, the richness of the book and, perhaps most importantly, the understanding of America. But here, now, in The Humbling, we learn very little of Axler's life before his breakdown. We know that he is a talented actor, but this is told to us, by Axler, by his friends, by sundry characters – told, not shown. We know he has money because he spends it, but again – told, not shown. An elderly friend tells him (and, by virtue of the technique, us),
“There was no one more thorough and studious and serious, no one who took better care of his talent or who better accommodated himself to the changing condition of a career in theatre over so many decades.” But this ability we never see – it is all told. A great deal of Axler, and the other characters, are told to us, because what Roth is trying to achieve with this novel is to explain the essence of a man in so far over his head that it is all he can do to stay afloat, and even that hope is foolish because sinking and drowning is a certainty. All throughout the novel we are told bits of information that best serve as springboards for Axler to obsess about his condition – that of being old, infirm, running out of use to himself and to others. He becomes, in his mind, “a loathsome man who was nothing more than the inventory of his defects.”
Now that Axler can “no longer make the imagined real,” he needs must find an outlet for himself, or else die. A woman, the improbably named Pegeen Mike, arrives equally improbably in his life and a relationship begins. Why so improbable? Well, Pegeen is forty, the daughter of old acting friends of Axler's, and a committed lesbian who has been 'out' for two decades. She drives over to visit Axler one day, and then soon they are lovers, with Pegeen going so far as to compare Axler's penis favorably (massively so) to the fingers and dildos she has used quite happily for twenty years with lovers and serious girlfriends. Add to that some 'feminine' clothing, a new haircut, and a round of makeup, and suddenly Pegeen goes from butch to beautiful, and Axler experiences oceans of sex.
But no, this is not an old man's dirty fantasy, as could so easily be believed. A summary of how they meet and how they are does not do the two justice. It is true that, in the novel, their meeting and her transformation are handled as smoothly and quickly as the above paragraph (well, perhaps it extends over a number of pages, but not many), but Axler is hardly fool enough to believe that this transformation is anything but calculated. He wants it to be real, desperately so, but from the very start he has his doubts and his fears. As one character remarks, Pegeen would not have chosen a 'nobody' to suddenly become heterosexual with, and Axler is no nobody – he's rich, he's famous, and he is a man used to getting what he wants from whomever he wants it. Axler, though for a long time he never understands what Pegeen wants from him, realizes early on that he has stepped over an abyss and that sooner or later he must fall. It's not a question of if but when.
Because without Pegeen Axler has nothing – his art is never to return, he realizes – Pegeen must then become everything. But she is forty and he is sixty-five; she has an obsessed ex-lover and he has no baggage at all; she has a too-close relationship to his parents and he wants nothing more than to love and be loved (yes, that means that, in some ways, Roth has become conservative in his old age!), so the power in the relationship slowly tips in Pegeen's favor, until she controls all, and is all, and Axler is left with nothing to do but wait until the sword of Damocles falls and his head is severed from his neck. His acceptance of this inevitability comes during a conversation about sex and sexual objects, during which
“his gaze remained hypnotically fastened to hers, and the helplessness in him, the feeling that he had been abandoned by his sense of reality and that the affair was a futile folly and that Pegeen's history was unmalleable and Pegeen unattainable and that he was bringing a new misfortune down on his head, began to abate.” Acceptance is a form of denial, and at the very least Axler is committed to enjoying his downfall.
The novel is titled The Humbling, which gives the reader a clear indication of what lies ahead for its protagonist. To be humbled is to become aware of your shortcomings, sometimes in a way which is humiliating and sometimes through insight. Axler experiences both, though the humiliations take over as the novel progresses. In the end, it is Axler himself who causes his own ruin, but that tends to be the way of these things. How often have you known what to do in a situation and yet done the opposite? How often has the right way been obvious, yet a different path travelled? Axler's flaw is that he is a human being, no more and no less. He suffers not from being a titanic figure such as Mickey Sabbath or Seymour Levov, but for being, simply, an old man.
There is a nice side-strand of plot between Axler and Sybil Van Buren, who is also attending Hammerton during Axler's brief stay. Sybil confides the horror which caused her to enter the psychiatric hospital, and throughout the novel her story returns at intervals, becoming progressively sadder and reflecting uncannily on the events of Axler's own disintegrating life. What is nice is not the story of Sybil but the way it shows Axler as a genuinely caring person, someone you could appreciate as a friend or respect as a colleague if he were not, at present, collapsing into indignity and ruin. In a sense, this is the most powerful aspect to Roth's novel, showing that no matter the talent, no matter the good qualities, no matter the integrity, wealth, and excellence in achievement, there comes by necessity a humbling, and that humbling is called old age and, then, death. Pegeen is a heavy-handed metaphor for the process of life's humbling, but her hammer blows juxtapose neatly, and sadly, with Sybil's fate.
The Humbling is a book best taken as a brick in the wall of Roth's novels on death, dying and the aging process. There are aspects of it that work best when compared with Everyman and Exit Ghost, but there is much that stands on its own feet. It is hard to see this novel as a major work on the scale of his great American trilogy, but it seems increasingly that Roth has turned away from the panoramic view to focus on the singular, the indivisible self. The Humbling is very good, but it is not a starting point to Roth's oeuvre. If you have never read anything by him, start with American Pastoral, Patrimony, or Goodbye, Columbus, three works from different stages in his career that show the immensity of his talent in immediate, important ways. Save The Humbling for when you are familiar with his work, and then savor it, like a thimbleful of fine wine sipped in the quiet time before bed.