For the First Church of RothSam Sacks
Everyman by Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin, 2006, 182p, $24
One of the more telling customs in Western literature is the peculiar relationship between old men and beautiful girls. Anyone who plans to verse himself in novels from the 19th century, for example, had better learn to accept that in many cases the stock happy ending was the wedding of a poor post-adolescent knockout to a wizened (though virtuous) clergyman or landed aristocrat. Ladies, take note: it was a truth universally acknowledged in the Victorian Era that wrinkly hermetic bachelors made the truest, tenderest husband.
So when many of the authors we cherish most from that time presented the scenario in a less than worshipful light it often seems that they were satirizing not just the wealthy codgers who monopolized the young, but also the literary tradition that presumed such a match was what all girls should most desire.
One of Dickens’ most depressing couples is Mr. Bounderby and Louisa Gradgrind in Hard Times: “I have watched her bringing up,” says Bounderby of his young wife, “and I believe she is worthy of me.” And who cuts a grislier figure in American letters than cuckolded Chillingworth in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter?
But the definitive portrayal of this pairing might be found in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, in the doomed marriage of earnest Dorothea and the hidebound pedant Causabon. At first Causabon appears to possess strength and stature in comparison to his feckless younger rivals; but in time Dorothea discovers that in binding herself to a dried-up traditionalist she has locked her spirit in a cell.
In the modern novel the loveship between the aged and the barely of-age has not gone out of fashion, but since Freud and the sexual revolution this subgenre has been approached in a highly specific way. If perhaps there was always a buried element of wet dreaming in these love stories in the past, it can now be said that little more than the gross aftereffects of the wet dream remains. The relationship seems to have become the exclusive property of old priapic men whose perspectives are, to say the least, one-sided.
Everyman, the new novel-cum-tract by Philip Roth, is exactly one of these books, and one of its central episodes is the affair between the nameless fifty-something main character and a twenty-four year old Danish model named Merete. Here are some of the attributes the affair shares with those you can find throughout the fiction of Saul Bellow, John Updike, John Cheever, and Louis Begley, to name a few:
1) The affair must always compare unfavorably to an earlier relationship with an older and less carnally desirable woman. In Everyman, Nameless has picked Merete over his second wife Phoebe, a responsible and longsuffering woman who was so good and reliable that, by an immutable law of the modern novel, he had no choice but to cheat on her and then bloat up with remorse.
2) The sex must be lewd, graphic, and delivered with all the magic of a gynecological seminar. Roth dwells endlessly on Merete’s “little hole,” a source of boundless delight for her and Nameless, and her vaginal fluid is lovingly described as “slime.”
3) The young woman must not be a real human being. Merete is really nothing more than an obliging asshole; another character describes her as “an absence and not a presence,” which is one of the most ingenious methods I’ve ever read for rationalizing a flat, unreal character.
4) There must be no attempt to explain why the woman would want to be with the older man. Does Merete actually like Nameless? Or is she like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who thinks the best husbands are old, rich, and impotent? (“So help me God, I laugh when I think/How pitifully I made them work at night.”)
5) Most importantly, the relationship must be primarily a symbol for the man’s waning sexual drive, which itself stands as a symbol, as portentous as a pale horse, for the man’s approaching mortality. In Roth’s world, the boyhood fantasy of raunchy Danish-model sex is man’s fountain of eternal youth–and death comes quickly once that fountain runs dry.
Everyman begins in a cemetery at Nameless’ funeral, in which his loosely bound family—he was thrice-divorced–scoots around on their chairs in awkwardness and offers tepid eulogies. Clearly, no one will miss him except his angelic daughter Nancy. Nor was his death unexpected. Although Nameless lived self-sufficiently into his seventies, his life is condensed into an unrelieved series of medical woes from his childhood hernia operation to a quintuple bypass to the angioplasties he had to undergo on an annual basis beginning in his sixties.
“Eluding death,” Roth writes, “seemed to have become the central business of his life.”
It is in the context of Nameless’ faltering health that we read of his ruinous marital history, his disconnection from his loved ones, his defeatism resulting from sexual decrepitude, and his existential “malaise.” From his home on the New Jersey shoreline, “the profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die.” Retired, he takes up painting and then gets tired of it. He watches on as acquaintances (he has no real friends) pass away. He makes a last stab at nailing a young woman who jogs past him every morning and is rejected. And through the emptiness and boredom he steels himself with the euphemism, “Just take it as it comes.” In the lonely passage of time the scales tip from malaise to despair and he is prodded by thoughts of suicide.Everyman’s final scene returns to the cemetery, where Nameless has a long conversation with the gravedigger who will very shortly dig his grave.
For an author famous for the unhinged spleening of Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, and Mickey Sabbath, one may be surprised by the restrained, almost clinical, writing style in Everyman. To be sure, the muted prose is uninteresting and too given to robotic turns of phrase like, “She manifested no fear and allowed none in her voice”–but it has a certain effectiveness when dealing with Nameless’ many surgeries; indeed, it has the spotless, antiseptic quality of hospital rooms, and after a half-dozen sedulously described operations Roth has successfully endued the reader with the shock and weariness that overwhelms his protagonist.
However, weariness, is where Roth’s ambitions end. The rest of the novel is a kind of droned hymn to resignation: “The aimless days and the uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and the waiting for nothing. This is how it works out, he thought, this is what you could not know.”
Everyman is a pastiche of a medieval morality play of the same title, and Roth’s bleak faceless figure is meant as an update on the psychology of the “average human being” who has now exorcised the bogeyman of God and all faith in an afterlife. With the gravedigger scene he is also of course invoking Hamlet, a play about another man whose loss of mirth and purpose led him to no little amount of existential kvetching too.
Well, since Roth has invited the comparison with Hamlet, it is only fair to follow it through. For Hamlet is an Everyman play as well, despite the hero’s exceptional status as a prince and avenger of a regicide. “Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,” Hamlet says, to desegregate himself from the groundlings, “Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”
In Hamlet, human beings have the stuff of heroism–they can be “infinite in faculties,” “the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.” Love is passionate. Friendship, as we see in Horatio, is true and noble, a thing worth dying for. This is why all the latent evil and decay in the world, whether from the oppressor’s calculated wrongs or the random slings and arrows of bad luck, are so devastating and universal. A death can only possibly be tragic if the life that led to it was great.
To Shakespeare, life is sublime and its destruction is heartbreaking; to Roth, life is banal and tawdry and its end is disinterested and awkward. For Hamlet, who by the play’s conclusion has gained a stoic’s acceptance of the prospect of death, “the readiness is all;” for Roth’s condescending version of the Everyman, dreariness is all and readiness is nothing.
Moreover, it is not beside the point to mention that even if you don’t identify with Hamlet, the play still offers poetry, humor, vivid side characters, and sword fighting. But for anyone who isn’t predisposed to agree with the underlying assumptions of Roth’s novel, who doesn’t think that anomie is the only honest response to an empty universe, who doesn’t already genuflect at the idea that hope and love are delusions fueled by the libido, which shrivel away once we can no longer boff young hotties–for anyone who isn’t, in short, a nodding choir member in the First Church of Roth, there is almost nothing in Everyman to care about.
Recently no less than six of Roth’s novels were short-listed by a distinguished New York Times panel choosing the best American fiction of the last twenty-five years. So I expect that there are a lot of people prepared to acclaim Roth for continuing to set down, in this his twenty-seventh book, some hard, unstinting truths about the shallowness of man and the vacuousness of old age without any sentimental sugarcoating in the forms of virtue, belief, philosophy, or the basic joy of everyday existence. Certainly, anyone searching for validation for a dull and cheerless life will find Everyman a satisfying read. Yet there is evidence that not even Roth buys into his book’s preachy desolation. Its “to be, or not to be” moment comes near the finish and reads, “How does one voluntarily choose to leave our fullness for that endless nothing?” This is a fine phrase and could have been moving if it were founded on anything in the story that preceded it. Instead, it is a polished cliché. In this lazy, tendentious novel there is no fullness of life and there is barely even the paltriest effort to create it.
Sam Sacks' is a freelance arts writer in New York City, and frequent contributor CJAS. His reviews also appear in the Las Vegas Weekly and thefanzine.com.