Darkness visible

In this flawed novel, an elderly actor faces fear of failing powers

Philip Roth explores a fascinating question in this latest work: How does creativity die? But he does so in an uncharacteristically distracted manner. Philip Roth explores a fascinating question in this latest work: How does creativity die? But he does so in an uncharacteristically distracted manner. (Nancy Crampton)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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Philip Roth’s latest novel may be his darkest. Maybe that’s not saying much since virtually all of his books are dark, at least in substance and theme.

But it usually is a darkness that dazzles. It shines out of his self-quarreling characters, whose insight is so acute that it approaches blindness, and who churn with a comic and terrible insatiability. The sinking vessel that carries them - they’ve helped pry the seams open - is formidably powered, elegantly equipped, and serves excellent meals (followed by a quiver of acid reflux).

With “The Humbling’’ the shipyard has done a distracted and hasty job. From the launch, it is clearly destined to go down. The trouble is that the trip is rough, the furnishings uncharacteristically shoddy, and the food lumpy.

In his last few books Roth has been treating last things: failing powers in “Exit Ghost,’’ a young man’s self-destructive path to death in “Indignation.’’ The first is haunting, the second wonderfully outrageous. As the French use butter to quietly enrich all manner of dishes, Roth uses comedy to enhance his somberness, and it is true of both of these brief but splendid books.

Not of this one. Failing powers are the single and unvarying theme in “The Humbling.” A great actor is suddenly unable to act; the misery and the humiliations to which this leads bring him to the verge of suicide. It is not the business of a review to be telling what happens. It is telling, though, that the reader rather wants him to go ahead with it.

Simon Axler is in the line of other Rothian figures of obnoxious extremity. With them, though, it is an extremity in which many of us may recognize as our own incipiences. So various are they, so bristling with ingenious self-invention, and, above all, so funny in their indignations, as to approach a prickly kind of charm.

Axler is charmless, an old man of sodden anger and self-pity. Roth has given him no sardonic side trips, no ingenious speculations, no humor. He squats upon his unhappiness like a large bullfrog upon a small lily pad. Not a bit of lily to be seen.

Briefly the story. Axler gives two dreadful and derided performances in Washington D.C. Suddenly, he feels, he has lost his acting magic. His wife leaves him. He has a stay in a psychiatric hospital. He emerges to live a depressed and solitary life in the country, resisting his agent’s plea to return to the stage.

The lesbian daughter of an old friend visits, cares for him, administers bouts of increasingly kinky sex, then suddenly leaves. His brief hopes extinguished - perhaps he could act again - he cradles a gun and wonders whether he has the guts to kill himself.

Roth is engaged in tackling a legitimate and interesting question: How does creativity die? (After his long and astonishingly fertile writing career, perhaps it goads at him.) For Axler, acting has depended on a balloon of illusion; when the balloon empties the illusion no longer lifts off. And what of a writer in a cold house facing an empty page (screen) that no longer is a window, but only a mirror that gives back an aging body, slowing heart, and imageless brain?

Quite uncharacteristically, Roth advances the question naked, with only the most cursory and contrived situations and characters to try to dress it. He has always created richly detailed and grounded lives, occupations, and settings for his people. (In “Indignation’’ we live among the knives and carcasses of the butcher shop where the protagonist helps his father.) By contrast, we get only a schematic and abstract sense of the theater that Axler has lived for and in.

Axler himself has no dimensions apart from his problem and his misery. Pegeen, the lesbian who seemingly comes to comfort him with food and fornication - in fact she is making a cold experiment with her own sexuality - is a charmless monster. And introduced rather improbably: a sort of diabolus ex machina.

As for the sex, something Roth has always been able to make tactile and alluring, here it is clinical and dark. No doubt he has a purpose. Eros is no country for old men. Not for Axler, anyway, caught to his subsequent dry shame in what amounts to an erotic shell game.

“The Humbled’’ is one of Roth’s weakest novels: a promising theme, perhaps, with a ragged fictional covering. It is not the first time he has created a character to make a point (though his best books are far richer and more complex than that). But usually he takes such pleasure in the creating, along with a slug of malice, that readers are able to indulge themselves on both.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 140 pp., $22

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