“Exit Ghost” by Philip Roth

“Exit Ghost” by Philip Roth (2007) – 292 pages

I’ve been reading Philip Roth for many years, ever since “Portnoy’s Complaint” came out in paperback, and his writing has given me a lot of highs and lows over the years,  He is a writer whom I have loved to hate, hated to love.   Roth’s books have been for me very uneven, not like those of Mario Vargas Llosa whose entire collection of novels I’ve admired. 

In “Exit Ghost”, Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman is now 71 years old.  After living in the far outer suburbs of Connecticut, he decides to swap living in his rural place for living in an apartment in downtown New York City.  The young couple he is swapping with are writers as well, and Nathan is tremendously attracted to the young woman of the couple, Jamie, whom he slightly knew from when she was a student in one of his classes. 

 In this novel Roth does not at all downplay the problems of old age.  Over the last ten years Nathan has dealt with cancer, impotence, incontinence, and loss of memory.  Yet Nathan is still robust, even lustful, to the point of reminding one of  Alexander Portnoy.

 One of the major plot lines of “Exit Ghost” concerns a young man named Kliman who is possibly a lover of Jamie and who wants to write a biography of Zuckerman’s long-dead writer friend Lonoff and so he pumps Zuckerman as well as Lonoff’s ex-girlfriend Amy for the inside goods.   Kliman is a pushy obnoxious guy, and Nathan can’t stand him.   

The novel takes place in 2004, and all the characters except Zuckerman are loudly lamenting the re-election of George W. Bush.  For the sake of his own peace of mind, Zuckerman has renounced political involvement.  Whenever you read about Nathan Zuckerman, you always wonder if you are actually reading about Philip Roth.  Roth has an offhand conversational style that makes you think he’s writing about his own life.   

As I mentioned earlier, I have a long history of reading Philip Roth.  Despite its scandalous subject matter, my opinion of “Portnoy’s Complaint” was somewhat lukewarm,   It was extremely self-indulgent, but maybe that was the point, the point of several of his books.  It was only after reading the books that followed “Portnoy’s Complaint” that I came to actively dislike Roth’s novels.    I read “Our Gang”, “The Breast”, and what was for me the nadir of his books, “My Life as a Man”.  After that, I gave up reading Roth.   But then I came across some very positive reviews of Roth’s novel “The Professor of Desire.  That novel was excellent as well as the next one, “The Ghost Writer”.   Then I went back to his early work “Goodbye, Columbus” which was very fine.    Although my opinion of Roth was then quite high, I rather lost track of Roth and again didn’t read him for a long time. 

I didn’t return to Philip Roth until “Everyman” a few years ago which for me is his finest work of all.  After that  “The Plot Against America”  and “Indignation” both left me underwelmed.    

So where does “Exit Ghost” fit in this continuum?  It was too scattershot to be in the top rank, but it was interesting enough to not be in the bottom rank.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. ?Exit Ghost? by Philip Roth…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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  2. I’ve only read one Roth and that was the Plot Against America and, like you, I was underwhelmed by it. I’ve not bothered to read any of this other stuff on that basis. Lots of people rave about Roth and I always wonder which book of his it is that first attracted them… the answers are always different. So, Tony, do you think it’s important to read his books in chronological order?

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    • Hi Kimbofo,
      I don’t think it is important to read his books in chronological order.. If I were starting over again, I’d probably start with “Everyman”, a short book that a lot of people think is excellent, or “The Professor of Desire”. Those are two of his best. But the reviews are kind of misleading, because “The Plot against America” was praised to the skies maybe because of the subject matter, but later a lot of people were disappointed in that book.

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  3. Posted by Chris N. on October 10, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    I’m surprised you left out Roth’s Pulitzer-winning “American Pastoral” from your critique. I, too, wasn’t blown away by “Plot Against America,” but “Pastoral” is one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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  4. Hi Chris,
    You know I honestly can’t remember if I read “American Pastoral” or not, and that really has nothing to do with the quality of the book. I could have read the greatest book ever written, I may have even thought it was the greatest book ever written, and today I may have forgotten whether or not I’ve read it. I know I wanted to read “American Pastoral”.

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  5. Me, coming in late! This made me both laugh Tony and feel better, because I have books like that. I’m currently reading Mitchell’s Thousand autumns… I do know I read Cloud atlas and I remember liking it but can I remember one iota of what it’s about? Well, no.

    BTW Not sure why but I’ve only read one Roth, The plot against America and I rather like it. Why do so many people not?

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  6. I suppose the problem I had with “The Plot Against America” was that it was very much straight historical fiction, and I didn’t expect that from Roth. The Lindbergh story is fascinating; it is just that Roth’s novels are usually more personal than that. It’s hard to read 400+ pages without more author attitude.

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