Defiantly experimental and pugilistic, Exit Ghost is the ninth novel to feature Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s randy, irascible alter-ego. This time Zuckerman takes on the vicissitudes of decline, decay, and mortality, having a go at the idea of the ‘literary reputation’ at the same time.
Rip-van-Winkle-like, Zuckerman returns to New York after ten years of self-imposed isolation. He’s come for the most mundane of reasons: a procedure that may reverse the effects of a previous surgery that left him incontinent (his impotence is untreatable). Scanning the personals at the back of The New York Review of Books, he’s carried away by the idea of retrieving his former life and answers an ad to swap his retreat in the Berkshires for the city apartment of a young writing couple. He’s quickly taken with Jamie, the wife, and allows himself to indulge in vivid fantasies of her.
By chance, he also encounters Amy Bellette, the companion to his first literary hero, E.I. Lonoff, and a woman with whom he was once infatuated. She’s being hounded by a journalist wanting to write a biography of Lonoff and expose his ‘great secret’. Zuckerman joins with Amy to guard Lonoff’s reputation at all costs, even if it means he’s forgotten and his works unread. As Zuckerman’s life intersects with these others, the present merges with the past and real life with fiction.
His playfulness with form and dedication to craft makes Roth a writer’s writer, and Exit Ghost is a book about writing. But it’s also a book about reading—and over reading. It rants on about the problems associated with a literary reputation and warns against conflating an author’s life with those of his characters. Of course, Roth is also teasing his readers. Like Zuckerman, he seems to want it both ways all the time.
Exit Ghost, Phillip Roth, Random House Australia.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2007.