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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Philip Roth continues his recent practice of delivering a new short novel every
year.   The tone of these works has been dark and foreboding, and  they seem
to be getting more so with each book.   Roth, the great explorer of taboo
subjects in his early career, now fixates on illness, decline and death—forcing us
to ask whether this is a new phase for the author, or just his bold assault on
the ultimate (in more ways than one) taboo.  

Instead of
Goodbye, Columbus or Portnoy’s Complaint we now get the portrait of
the artist as an old has-been.   We still have the familiar Roth obsession with
sex, but his characters in
The Humbling fantasize
even more about killing themselves.  At one point
Roth places his hero amidst of the patients of a
psychiatric hospital where the most popular
subject of conversation is suicide, which is
addressed in both practical and theoretical
terms.  Welcome to the late period Roth, where
hanky-panky is less exciting than hara-kiri.  

You might think that it would be hard to get more
dispiriting than Roth’s
Everyman (2006), which
opens with its hero already in a coffin, or
Indignation (2008) which starts out with its
protagonist having suffered a fatal combat wound
in Korea.  But you would be wrong.  At least
these characters had some animating spirit before
the Grim Reaper intervened, unlike Simon Axler,
the aging actor at the center of Roth’s latest
fiction
The Humbling.  

Axler has lost his talent…and his will to live.   He was once a nonpareil actor, but
his skills have apparently disappeared.  The novel opens shortly after Axler’s
disastrous appearance as Macbeth at the Kennedy Center.   His agent implores
him to return to the stage, but Axler feels that his case his hopeless.
“Something fundamental has vanished,” he confesses,.  “Maybe it had to.  
Things go.”

Roth is masterful in presenting his protagonist’s obsession with suicide, which
the failed actor conceptualizes via scenes drawn from great dramas.  “Sitting
there amid his books, he tried to remember plays in which there is a character
who commits suicide,” Roth writes.  “Hedda in
Hedda Gabler, Julie in Miss Julie,
Phaedra in
Hippolytus, Jocasta in Oedipus the King, almost everyone in Antigone,
Willy Loman in
Death of a Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, Don Parritt in The
Iceman Cometh
, Simon Stimson in Our Town, Ophelia in Hamlet…”  By the time
Axler has finished this rumination, which continues for another full page, he is
half-convinced that suicide is not a sin or a sign of weakness, but just one final
starring role in a celebrated theatrical life.  

After 26 days of institutionalization, Axler is ready to return to the world.  His
suicidal impulses have abated, but he stills feels incapable of resuming his
stage career.  He retires to his home where, abandoned by his wife, his daily
routine is “Walk. Sleep. Stare into space. Try to read. Try to forget myself for at
least one minute of each hour.”   Roth has made a specialty of such recluses
over the years and one of the tell-tale signs of his fictions is his persistence in
forcing excitement into the lives of the secluded—invariably in the form of
surprising developments from unexpected quarters.

In Axler’s case, the titillation arrives at his door in the person of Pegeen Mike
Stapleford, a young lady whose parents once shared the stage with the
actor.    Axler had first seen Pegeen when she had been a baby nursing at her
mother’s breast.   Now she is forty years old and seeks out Axler, who is sixty-
five.  Pegeen is recovering from a broken relationship with a woman in
Montana.   On the rebound, she decides to try a straight partner, and falls into
an affair with a man old enough to be her father.

The second half of
The Humbling often seems like a graft from a different book.  
The despondent Axler we got to know in the opening pages is replaced by a
vibrant man hatching elaborate plans.  At first his goals are modest ones—
changing the wardrobe and accessories of the new woman in his life—but his
ambitions soon escalate to grand life-transforming schemes.   This is Roth’s
“past recaptured,” but while Proust achieved it via memory, our hero here
wants to regain his lost vitality in the flesh.  

Has Simon Axler been granted a second wind, a new lease on a happy
productive life?  Or is he simply setting himself up for an even grander fall?  
Once again, the details of the actor’s life seem to echo the themes of the great
stage dramas.  But is this one destined to be a romance or a tragedy?  

Roth wraps up his story quickly but convincingly.   
The Humbling is a taut and
provocative novel, the best of Roth’s recent efforts.   But already the author’s
publisher has announced the next novel in this writer’s annual cycle—
Nemesis,
scheduled for 2010.  I’m looking forward to it, but if Roth’s books get any
grimmer, the bookstores may need to move them to the horror section.  


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.
The Humbling

by Philip Roth
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

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BY TED GIOIA

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