Roth's complaint

by Kevin Rabalais / 26 December, 2009
The ageing actor in <i>The Humbling</i> has lost it, and so has its author with this novel.

T

he publication of a new Philip Roth novel feels like a cultural event. Fans of the author of Portnoy's Complaint, The Ghost Writer and American Pastoral show the kind of excitement we equate more often with movie premieres. Fifty years ago, Roth received a National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus. Over the next five decades, he would win another National Book Award, as well as a Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner awards and a slew of other commendations that make him among America's most highly decorated novelists.

One pleasure of reading this body of work has been to see how Roth, now aged 76, has maintained his edginess while increasing his vigorous productivity. The Humbling, his 30th novel, is his seventh published this decade. This streak incorporates one of the great runs in contemporary fiction. Between 1997 and 2004, Roth published some of his most critically acclaimed work, including American Pastoral, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. These bold, sweeping novels examine the American Century. Roth's career has always been expansive, but these novels are three of the best reasons we hear Roth's name mentioned each year as a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Since then, however, Roth has narrowed his vision so much that last year's Indignation read like an excerpt from a larger work. Now comes The Humbling, a thin and unsatisfying novel in which we find Roth workmanlike and unconvincing. His protagonist, Axler, is an ageing actor, "the last of the best of the classical American stage actors", as Roth writes. When we meet him, Axler is afraid of killing himself and unable to act.

"No, it's gone," Axler says. "I can't do any of it again. You're either free or you aren't. You're either free and it's genuine, it's real, it's alive, or it's nothing. I'm not free anymore."

Axler's wife leaves him shortly after this confession. He then enters a psychiatric hospital and is put on suicide watch. Upon leaving, he begins an affair with the much younger Pegeen. Axler wants to have as much sex with this former lesbian as possible in order to help her forget her preference for women. The two eventually include a third party in their sexual adventures.

"'Your turn,' Pegeen tells Axler. 'Defile her.' She took Tracy by one shoulder, whispered, 'Time to change masters,' and gently rolled the stranger's large, warm body toward his. 'Three children got together,' [Axler] said, 'and decided to put on a play,' whereupon his performance began."

Although Roth has never recoiled from writing about sex, in sections such as this he seems engaged neither in his characters nor his story, and The Humbling proceeds with little conviction. While it's tempting to praise Roth for increasing his output as he gets older, it's more instructive to admire Axler for ceasing to practise his art when in a lull - "I'm overreaching," he acknowledges. "I'm faking" - in order to rejuvenate.

Reading The Humbling, we feel a sense of disappointment over what might have been if, rather than publishing this novel as it is, Roth had set this skeleton of a story inside a larger novel. The kind of novel, that is, that made Roth a writer whose every book we eagerly await.

"He'd lost his magic," we learn about Axler. Previously, Roth has written that there is nothing magical about the craft ?of writing. Although some writers await inspiration, others get on with their work. That's sound advice for anyone who wants to write, but it fails to acknowledge the spell that each page must cast upon the reader and that is absent from The Humbling.

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