Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Exit Ghost--Philip Roth

I am 141 pages into Exit Ghost by Philip Roth, the concluding chapter of the Nathan Zuckerman books. There are two (debatably) types of Zuckerman books: ones in which he acts as a guide or sounding board to someone else's story (American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Human Stain) and the ones in which Roth's explores Zuckerman's pysche exhaustively. In the 80's these books (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Bound, The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy) were combined into a single book, now out of print, called Zuckerman Bound. I read the paperback of this in college, most likely while skipping some hideous lecture hall class, and have always believed that the books belong together in some way. In the fall, Library of America will release them in one volume as the next installment of the collected edition of Roth's work. This is a terrific development and hopefully it will give much needed attention to Roth's underrated masterwork.

Exit Ghost feels to be true to the tone and mood of the first Zuckerman books, and I would imagine that any future editions of Zuckerman Bound should include it. I should also say that Roth's rapid canonization over the past few years implicitly denigrates his earlier work and elevates his work of the last ten years. I don't want to argue against the merits of his great novels of this period, but I do think that his best work was done from My Life as a Man up to and including Operation Shylock. Zuckerman Bound (with or without Exit Ghost), The Counterlife, Patrimony, and Operation Shylock are brilliant, essential books. The snap and vigor of Roth's prose in these books dwarfs the exhausting monologues of his later books and his comic timing is sharp in a way it would never be again.

In some ways, Roth has done exactly what Irving Howe and the High Priests of Literature wanted him to do: sober up, remove head from belly-button, cut out the jokes. Exit Ghost seems to be very much about the contradiction and Zuckerman cannot return easily to the Zuckerman who wrote Carnovsky.