Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Exit Ghost

I’ve read several books by Philip Roth.  Most of the time I enjoy the reads.  Roth is about fifteen years older than I am and often writes about people who are his contemporaries.  One reason I like his novels is because they provide some insight into problems I may have in a short period of time.

Nathan Zuckerman is a recurring character in Roth's books.  Zuckerman, it sure seems to me, is Roth himself.  The books I like the best are the ones when Zuckerman is narrating the story as opposed to the central character.   For example, Zuckerman is the narrator of American Pastoral--one of those books I know I am better off for having read.  The Roth/Zuckerman novels I am less keen about are the ones that are about Zuckerman himself.  In American Pastoral Zuckerman is writing about “the Swede.”  In Exit Ghost, Roth--in the first person-- is writing about Zuckerman.  And while I did not like this book as well as some others, Exit Ghost was valuable if also troubling as I think it may--metaphorically at least--be about many of us myself not excluded.

Zuckerman in Exit Ghost is 71 (which is about the age Roth was when he wrote Exit Ghost).  After spending eleven years as a recluse in western Massachusetts, Zuckerman travels to New York City hoping to be cured of a medical problem.  There is a new procedure. If successful he will be able to control his bladder and not wear the diapers he relies on and must change on a regular basis.  Zuckerman had grown comfortable in his home in the Berkshires, rarely seeing anyone, enjoying--or so he thought--the privacy of living alone.

Zuckerman arrives in New York where he used to live and is reminded of the energy and possibilities of living.  The doctor thinks the medical procedure has been successful and this possibility, of course, buoys Zuckerman.   He is so charged by the New York energy that he impulsively responds to an ad he spots for a couple who wishes to swap residences--move to a rural locale in exchange for their New York city apartment.  Following the impulse he travels to the apartment and on the spot agrees to make the switch.  He'll take their apartment, they'll take his secluded house.

But then stuff happens which reminds him of his vulnerabilities and, in the end, suggests to him that he can longer be energized.  The medical procedure, while initially indicating positive results, does not relieve him of the problem.  An aspiring author becomes a pest and pesters him.  A woman to whom he is attracted is lukewarm to his advances and he himself wonders if he could be a satisfactory companion.  He runs into a friend from the past who is disintegrating from cancer.  And Zuckerman's short term memory fails him too often for him to trust himself completely.

Exit Ghost is not an uplifting read.  Zuckerman's home in the woods is only superficially comfortable as is made obvious when he is initially energized by his visit to New York.  And yet the alternative to living in the woods--residing in the apartment in New York City--is a prospect with which, he fears, he cannot cope.  

Unlike Zuckerman, I am less pessimistic about life's turbulence.  Yes, we all have some type of ailment that can reduce us to something less than what we were.  And I, for sure, am stunned by my lack of short term memory even though my long term recollections are as keen as they ever have been.  And yes, we all are confronted with not being able to get all we want and are annoyed by pests we cannot get rid of.  But life still beats the alternative. We have opportunities to break through to a more enjoyable existence--something that our dead ancestors crave.

I am not sure of the meaning of the title, Exit Ghost, but I am sure that as long as we are here, we should not consider an exit, or that we are in fact, exiting.  Always we have an opportunity to enter regardless of afflictions and nagging pests.

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