book coverphilip roth

What began with ‘The Ghost Writer’ in 1979 ends 9 novels on with Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zucherman, now 71 years old, returning from 11 years self imposed isolation to find an America greatly changed for the worse. He is full of with grumpy old man observations, like viewing cell phones as “the embodiment of everything I want to escape” and also bemoans the waning of his creative powers “I may have accumulated over four decades the prestige of writing book after book but I had reached the end of my effectiveness nonetheless“.

Equally devastating is his state of health. Prostate cancer has left him impotent and incontinent, the reality of which is rendered in brutally frank terms: “The once rigid instrument of procreation was now like the end of a pipe you see sticking out of a field somewhere, a meaningless piece of pipe that spurts and gushes intermittently, spitting forth water to no end, until a day arrives when somebody remembers to give the valve the extra turn that shuts the damn sluice down“.

The perspective on ageing is therefore a relentlessly bleak one in which “the pain of being present in the present moment” means facing the fact that while his lustful thoughts towards younger women have to be borne with the realisation that he has “neither the confidence of the seducer nor the capacity for the performance“.

Zucherman is like a walking ghoul, a personification of what are portaryed as a fading breed of readers and writers of serious books described as “ghosts at the end of the literary era“.

Roth’s pessimism towards the cultural state of the nation matches the crisis in America’s role as a superpower governed by morons – the narrative takes place during the election of Bush for a second term which clearly offers little consolation or cause for hopefulness

Roth, now 73, shows with this novel that he intends to go out raging against the fading of the light. The world , like Zucherman, may be slowly falling to pieces but so long as there is writing of this honesty there is still hope.