Zuckerman Returns, and Fiction Flirts with Life Again
A Contrary review by Mike Frechette

Recent literary theory insists that responsible interpretation should not be driven by an author’s biographical details. Yet when a novel’s protagonist clearly derives from the author himself, the temptation to conflate author and character is difficult to resist. Philip Roth’s most recent novel, Exit Ghost, tempts the reader precisely in this way. It features one of his most celebrated characters, Nathan Zuckerman, who began appearing in Roth’s novels with The Ghost Writer in 1979. As countless critics have noted, many readers have come to view Zuckerman as Roth’s alter ego.
        Like Roth, Zuckerman is a reclusive Jewish-American writer, obsessive about his work and approaching the end of his existence. Some might call these similarities superficial, but they certainly begin to distort the boundary between the real, living author and his fictional character. In fact, Zuckerman admits that this boundary between life and fiction is porous: “For some…[fictional] amplification… constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.”  In this novel, where author and character are so alike, it is easy to imagine that these words are Roth’s, and that Zuckerman, Roth’s own “fictional amplification,” leads a life more real to Roth than his own. 
The story begins with Zuckerman revealing that he has spent the past eleven years in isolation in the rural Berkshires, a move he made both to escape anti-Semitic threats and also to work in peace. Disgusted with the toll age has taken, though, he has returned to New York City to receive the collagen injections that he hopes will ameliorate his cancer-induced impotence and incontinence. The injections prove only moderately effective, but New York invigorates him. In this heightened state, he impetuously responds to an ad to swap houses and consequently meets Billy Davidoff and his attractive wife Jamie Logan. Jamie serves as Zuckerman’s sexual obsession, inspiring an erotic drama that Zuckerman intersperses throughout the narrative. The drama is a bit tedious and dull, but thematically significant, for it functions as a “fictional amplification” where what is imagined becomes more exciting and meaningful than actual life.
Through Jamie and her husband, Zuckerman then encounters Richard Kliman, a young, ambitious cultural journalist who is writing the biography of Zuckerman’s deceased mentor – E.I. Lonoff. An old man now, Zuckerman resents Kliman’s egoism, assertiveness, and youthful confidence – all the characteristics he once possessed as a young writer himself. Once he learns that Kliman’s biography will unveil a “great secret,” he spends many of the novel’s remaining pages trying to prevent Kliman from publishing a heap of lies about Lonoff’s life. While Zuckerman writes about and even fictionalizes his own life, he apparently despises this same type of “fictional amplification” in biography, where control often rests with an opportunist like Kliman.
Despite its shortcomings, the novel is well worth the short time it takes to read it. The plot might be slow, but the prose is poignant, eloquent, and lyrical. And the book may be especially enjoyable for those nostalgic readers already familiar with the other Zuckerman novels, since Roth reintroduces old characters and plotlines. For instance, Amy Bellette, Lonoff’s former lover from The Ghost Writer, makes a significant reappearance in this newest installment, and the plot of that first novel is rehashed as a backdrop to Exit Ghost. Besides nostalgia, though, there is also a note of sadness for readers who have followed Zuckerman from the outset: the title suggests that he has just made his last appearance in Roth’s oeuvre.
        On a final note, this reviewer must admit that he was a bit suspicious upon seeing a new Roth novel on the shelves so soon after Everyman, Roth’s 2006 publication; it smacked of an old writer churning out novels in a race against time. Nevertheless, Roth once again has given his readers a quality piece of literature, one that forces them to reconsider the supposed boundary between himself and his protagonist, his life and his fiction.

MIke Frechette lives in Chicago with his wife Michelle.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008
Exit Ghost
by Philip Roth
2007, Houghton Mifflin

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