Since 1974, when he surfaced in a short story within My Life as a Man, the fictional novelist Nathan Zuckerman has served Philip Roth as a supple instrument to explore the ambitions, anxieties, and constraints of the writing life. In The Ghost Writer (1979), Roth makes Zuckerman the protagonist, a young, determined writer who seeks a mentor in the aging literary lion E. I. Lonoff. Readers of Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), and The Counterlife (1986) were able to follow Zuckerman’s erotic tribulations and his successful publishing career. By the time Roth created his “American trilogy” of American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), age and infirmity had subdued Zuckerman, who serves as self-effacing witness to the extraordinary lives of others.
Exit Ghost, which derives its title from a stage direction in Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601), is the ninth and, according to Roth, final Zuckerman novel. Zuckerman is the narrator, and, mindful of evidence that his mind is deteriorating, that his ability to remember basic information is eroding, he observes: “Nothing is certain any longer except that this will likely be my last attempt to persist in groping for words to combine into the sentences and paragraphs of a book.” He now dominates the story, but at its outset the seventy-one-year-old character whose author is giving up on him has already given up on the world. For the past eleven years, Zuckerman has lived in seclusion in a two-room cabin on twelve acres in rural western Massachusetts. Prostate cancer has rendered the former sexual athlete impotent and incontinent, and he has deliberately lost touch with contemporary culture. Abjuring the clamorous, contentious urban world that he had inhabited for most of his adult life, he no longer reads newspapers and magazines and, lacking a computer, is sublimely innocent of the Internet. When he returns to New York for a medical procedure, Zuckerman, astonished that during his absence pedestrians have sprouted cell phones on their ears, feels like Rip Van Winkle. In the opening pages of Exit Ghost, Zuckerman has in effect become a ghost of his former self.
While in New York, he catches a glimpse of Amy Bellette, who was E. I. Lonoff’s muse and mistress in The Ghost Writer. She is now old and terminally ill, dying of brain cancer, and, while curious about what has become of her, Zuckerman is reluctant to intrude on her privacy. However, their acquaintance is renewed through the intervention of an ambitious young pest. He is Richard Kliman, a twenty-eight-year-old literary novice intent on making his mark in the publishing world by writing the biography of E. I. Lonoff. He is a total stranger to Zuckerman, but when an informant in a bookstore alerts Kliman that Zuckerman is back in town and still reading Lonoff, the would-be biographer immediately calls the famous novelist in his hotel room. When he tries to pry information about Lonoff, Zuckerman, who knew and admired the late master of short fiction, hangs up on him.
It is a reaction that biography, the vocation that empowers snoops, inspires. Lonoff aspired to disappear into his texts, and Zuckerman is appalled by Kliman’s scheme to restore Lonoff’s reputationand promote his ownby exposing the writer’s guilty secrets, specifically the incest that the author had allegedly committed with his half sister. (While readers of The Ghost Writer have recognized that Lonoff, a master of the short story, is generally modeled on Bernard Malamud, the incest theme suggests an additional link to Henry Roth, the troubled author of Call It Sleep, 1934, who likewise indulged in adolescent sex with his sister.) Declaring himself “the biographer’s enemy,” Zuckerman, trying to make common cause with the embittered and unbalanced Bellette, sets out to sabotage Kliman’s project.
Like Lonoff, Zuckerman is resolutely devoted to his craft, and he has kept himself aloof from the distracting chatter of the city’s...
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