On the Brink

James Lever

  • The Humbling by Philip Roth
    Cape, 140 pp, £12.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 08793 3

Here’s a novella of slightly over 30,000 very plain words – Philip Roth’s shortest book since The Prague Orgy – structurally straightforward, winnowed of syntactical excitement, sterilised of jokes, rhythmically muted, baldly plotted, low on confrontation, low on tension, low on brilliancies and generally low all round. Here, the writing temperature has sunk below even that of Everyman: it’s prose as utilitarian as you can get without making the flatness of the style into an ostentation. It opens with a verdict, rapped out with judicial impatience: ‘He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent … His talent was dead.’ The text that follows is so shorn of obvious sorcery that you’re tempted to read the first four words half as a challenge, daring you to think the verdict is autobiographical – a prophecy or a lament. Or a boast: the magic hasn’t been lost so much as abjured, like Prospero’s.

Prospero is one of The Humbling’s household gods. Attempting a Tempest/Macbeth double bill at the Kennedy Center, the 65-year-old protagonist, Simon Axler, ‘the last of the best of the classical American stage actors’, is suddenly abandoned by his talent. No reason is given – there is no reason – and Axler suffers a breakdown, aggravated by his inability to believe even in the sincerity of his own collapse. Overwhelmed, his wife leaves him. Alone with a shotgun in his New England farmhouse and terrified of suicide, Axler checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, where his suicidal feelings recede as arbitrarily as they arrived. He forges a brief bond with a damaged young woman, Sybil Van Buren, who asks him to kill her child-abusing husband for her. Axler demurs, checks out after a month, and after an expositionary conversation with his agent, who vainly attempts to persuade him back to the stage, finds himself a year later ‘thinking again about killing himself as often as he had been before being hospitalised … Once again, the focus was down to suicide.’ Inspecting a dying possum’s snow-hole, Axler sees that the creature (‘nature’s little caricature of him’) has made ‘a collection of sticks. He counted them. Six sticks. So that’s how it’s done, Axler thought. I’ve got too much. All you need are six.’ End of Act I.

Act II: ‘The Transformation’. Enter Pegeen Stapleford, the 40-year-old lesbian daughter of two old actor friends of Axler’s. She’s still recovering from her last serious relationship, which her girlfriend ‘Priscilla’ ended by surgically transforming herself into a man. She and Axler begin an affair. Pegeen begins to think of her lesbian past as a ‘17-year mistake’ and Axler is regenerated, though still chary of returning to the stage. The affair deepens, despite Pegeen’s parents’ mild disapproval, and in ‘an orgy of spoiling and spending that suited them both just fine’ Axler encourages her into the lineaments of a more conventional femininity. He disturbs an embittered and jealous former lover of Pegeen’s – Louise Renner, the dean of the college where Pegeen teaches – spying on his farmhouse, who warns him that Pegeen’s ‘an unusually childish person for her age. She’s a kid, really … Pegeen’s nobody, you know.’

Part III: ‘The Last Act’. Pegeen’s parents warn her against Axler more forcefully and he tries to suppress his irritation at their interventions. He also reads in the paper that Sybil Van Buren has shot her husband. Pegeen confesses to a couple of one-night stands with women and, in an attempt to regain control of their increasingly volatile sexual relationship, Axler initiates a threesome with a drunk young woman, ‘Tracy’, whom they pick up at a local inn. The encounter seems to accentuate his growing insecurity. Nonetheless, out of the blue, he suddenly feels all his old confidence return: ‘he imagined Pegeen having a healthy baby the very month that he opened at the Guthrie Theater in the role of James Tyrone … The stretch of bad luck was over.’ Axler is completely restored to himself and consults a specialist about the potential hazards of conceiving a child at his age. But Pegeen abruptly ends the affair. Axler’s new confidence collapses instantaneously. Inaccurately blaming her parents, Axler rages at them over the phone before retreating to his attic with his shotgun. He vacillates until, remembering Sybil Van Buren’s decisive act, ‘finally it occurred to him to pretend that he was committing suicide in a play … it would constitute his return to acting.’ He imagines himself to be Konstantin from The Seagull, his first successful role, picks up the gun and … well, I don’t want to give the end away.

More tersely summarised: suicidal Axler is about to kill himself, a transparently doomed affair delays the inevitable and, when it ends, he does kill himself. Why Pegeen at all? Why her parents, why Sybil and Tracy and Louise? None of the plot’s cogs ever lock together to power the story. All over the book, elements fail to lead anywhere or impel anything. We’re encouraged to think that Pegeen’s childish relationship with her parents (and this forms a sizeable chunk of the novel) militates against her forming a relationship with a man, that her father, Asa, is still in the way – but in the end their objections are irrelevant to Pegeen’s exit. The strand comes to nothing. Sybil Van Buren’s story (which occupies another 20 pages) is supposed to act as the catalyst for Axler’s suicide: ‘Yes, he thought, if she could summon up the force to do something so terrible to the husband who was her demon, then I can at least do this to myself.’ And yet, since it’s impossible by this point to conceive of Axler escaping his suicide’s momentum (Pegeen’s leaving is ‘a fall … from which there was now no recovery’), her story just muddies the clarity of the action. He doesn’t need Sybil to pull the trigger – his death is determined by the loss of Pegeen. Louise Renner, the dean half-crazed by the pain of rejection, and a possible agent of Axler’s destruction, delivers her denunciation and disappears – but her warnings that Pegeen is a ruthless breaker of hearts jibes with the fact that it was Pegeen’s previous girlfriend who left her. Axler hasn’t been ensnared by a serial jilter and Louise is another essentially superfluous cameo. Again, Tracy, the girl in the threesome whom Axler fears he has inadvertently turned into Pegeen’s next lover, turns out to have no real bearing on the outcome. No, Pegeen leaves simply ‘to satisfy the common enough human wish to move on and try something else … Improbable? No, predictable.’ Which it is. In fact, Axler’s already predicted it: ‘When she is strong and I am weak, the blow that’s dealt will be unbearable. He believed he was seeing clearly into their future, yet he could do nothing to alter the prospect.’

And anyway, it isn’t as if any reader of Roth could seriously believe in Axler’s proposed salvation-by-child, or by love or sex (‘He who forms a tie is lost’ – David Kepesh’s friend George O’Hearn, telling it straight in The Dying Animal). They won’t save him, and nor will solitude: it’s the absence of ties which has brought him to this pass. Axler has no family: no memories of dear Morty Sabbath to stay his hand, no sweet-natured daughter like the Everyman’s to live for. The suicide is unstoppable, and all that Axler’s revitalising affair, the meat of the book, affects is its motivation, diminishing it from despair at the insupportability of life without a vocation to despair at an erotic humiliation. Poor Axler is doomed from the first sentence, and The Humbling frequently feels less like a novel than a one-liner (a very good one-liner – like a Graham Greene short story – about an actor made suicidal by his inability to act, who can kill himself only by successfully acting a suicide) interrupted by a long and pointless digression. Well, that’s life: a one-liner interrupted by a long and pointless digression. Meanwhile, the Act I shotgun patiently hangs on the wall, waiting to obey Chekhov’s dictum, and the reader is reduced to wondering about the value of a plot that eats itself, that mocks itself. Because The Humbling derides Axler’s dreams of escape, and your hopes for him. When, bouncing with confidence and vigour, Axler visits the consultant to discuss the health of his sperm, he finds himself in a room designed to be used by children, ‘a huge man sitting awkwardly amid these little tables and chairs’, a silly infant trying to cheat destiny. It’s punitive of Roth to think of those chairs: not actually contemptuous, but not far from a kind of Attic scorn.

Roth’s previous novel, Indignation, was constructed along similar lines. Fifty pages in, we discover that our hero, the college freshman Marcus Messner, will soon be lying dead on a numbered hill in Korea, and from this point on the book reframes itself as a series of red herrings. We know that Marcus is going to commit some infraction of good Christian values that will get him expelled and thus drafted – but what’ll it be? His sexual involvement with an unbalanced and impregnatable Wasp? The grudge his homosexual roommate bears him? His making an enemy of the dean by lecturing him on Bertrand Russell? The suspiciously helpful friend who arranges for a substitute to take his place at chapel? Some random anti-semitism? It’s none of the above. Marcus is caught not attending chapel, but the dean offers him a deal: go every week and you can stay. Marcus tells him to go fuck himself. What kills him is his innate indignation, or his love of his own indignation, a character trait that exists beneath or apart from the machinations of the plot, which is thus revealed to have consisted mainly of teases or dead ends. This isn’t ‘life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences’, as Marcus’s fear-ridden father warns him. The misstep isn’t important: this is life, where the tragic consequences are coming just because you’re you. The cells of Marcus’s tragedy are dividing even before we have begun reading, and the rest isn’t at bottom much more than irony and scenery.

But Indignation does at least have scenery. There’s Roth’s customarily astounding period ventriloquy, there’s the scar on a wrist flashing white as it enacts the motions of a handjob, there’s Marcus soothing his mother to sleep by reading her the history of the Republic which is about to send him to his death: all the pleasures of a fine novel. The Humbling doesn’t go in for these distractions. It’s neither suspenseful nor beautifully written, and it isn’t more than cursorily bothered about the interesting possibilities that acting offers as a subject. (A subject on which Roth is usually sensational, both on the theatre – remember Mickey Sabbath directing his wife in The Cherry Orchard? – and on acting in everyday life. From The Counterlife: ‘I’m all for authenticity but it can’t begin to hold a candle to the human gift for playacting. That may be the only authentic thing we ever do.’)

When the narrative valency of a novel is low or obscure, the term ‘meditation’ is often bestowed on it, lowered like a calming hand onto our brow (‘Oh, so that’s what that sense of aimlessness is – it’s a meditation … ’ Yeah, ‘on loss, ageing and death’) but you couldn’t call The Humbling a ‘meditation’ in the way that Everyman and The Dying Animal are, with their riffs, their digressions, their incidental wisdom. It isn’t a meditation, it’s a play – or at least a novel whose ideal form may be more theatrical than fictional. Axler’s thoughts are for the most part pared down to a flat rhetorical disputatio: ‘How could he be overthrown for Tracy? How could he be defeated by Asa? … And suppose she wasn’t leaving him for Tracy. Or leaving him because of her family’s objections. Then what had made him repugnant to her?’ Physical descriptions of characters are no more than casting directions (Sybil is ‘an elfin, pale-skinned brunette’, Pegeen, ‘a lithe, full-breasted woman of 40’) and glimpses of the house and locality are no more than stage directions. There are no references to the time of year, or indeed to the year we’re in (though it’s hard to think of an Axler in 2009); there’s a single glancing reference to the weather. Aside from a number of anomalously detailed descriptions of Pegeen’s clothes – so we see them as costumes – it’s by far the least visualised book Roth’s ever written, including Deception, which was composed entirely in dialogue. The world of The Humbling is very deliberately insubstantial, and consistent with its own portrait of Axler’s mental state:

Meanwhile, Prospero’s most famous words wouldn’t let him be … ‘Our revels now are ended. These our actors/As I foretold you, were all spirits and/Are melted into air, into thin air.’ He could do nothing to blot out ‘thin air’, the two syllables … had the aura of an obscure indictment even as they came to make less and less sense.

Everything here, even the sex, is vaporous or on the brink of dissolving. (When Roth calls Axler’s dream of a child an ‘aery tale’, he’s spelling it with the same ‘e’ you find in Prospero’s ‘aery charm’.) If you feel you’re at a play more than in a novel, then it’s a very Scandinavian evening, a winterised Chekhov – not a lot happening, an enormous tonnage of subtext, a lighting designer imperceptibly dimming the wattage throughout, and a gun waiting to go off. Axler, Pegeen, Louise, Sybil aren’t ‘good characters’ in the sense that you might use the term of Merry Levov, say, or Alexander Portnoy, or Maureen Tarnopol – they’re not vivid or specific, they don’t possess intriguing motivations, they don’t say anything particularly interesting, they’re not very likeable or dislikeable – but in their non-specificness there’s great suggestivity, a gain in the number of different line-readings we can have of their dialogue. And in relation to each other they are powerfully dramatic. Any actor reading The Humbling will immediately recognise the subterranean strength of the set-up, even though, on the page, the best-drawn character by a mile is the possum. I don’t mean this facetiously: the possum (which shows some family resemblance to the narrator of Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’, and will sit nicely in the memorable bestiary Roth has quietly put together over the years) is a masterly touch, exactly like something seen off-stage and described in a play. Its ‘six sticks’ are there to help remind you of the novella’s own sticks. There are three: Axler has a bad back and walks with a cane that summons to mind Prospero’s broken staff; Pegeen has a strap-on dildo coloured a regenerative green; and there is the shotgun. These objects glow out of the murk of the book, a little schematically perhaps, but still, a handy résumé of the bleakness of Roth’s unillusioned thinking. Age, sex and death: they are the facts when you come to brass tacks.

You expect the excision of the inessential in late works, but Roth is now managing to cut away even ‘the tiniest misstep’ as a catalyst for disaster. People are destroyed completely arbitrarily. Marcus Messner gives us a long list of plausible reasons why his stable, sturdy father is suddenly, out of nowhere, unshipped by a terror of everything, but they’re just rationalisations of something inexplicable. His father just woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. Everyman’s hero is also menaced by an utterly sourceless dread (‘he could not understand where the fear was coming from … ’) and Zuckerman’s ultimate verdict on the fall of Coleman Silk, who so brilliantly tried to outfox history, is that he was ‘blindsided by the terrifyingly provisional nature of everything’. In Sabbath’s Theater, you could at least, if you wanted, ascribe Mickey Sabbath’s blazing nihilism to his brother’s untimely death in the Pacific war, that is, to history. But here tragedy has dispensed with cause and effect: ‘“Nothing has a good reason for happening,” he said to the doctor later that day. “You lose, you gain – it’s all caprice. The omnipotence of caprice. The likelihood of reversal. Yes, the unpredictable reversal and its power.”’ The omnipotence of caprice – that’s what The Humbling and the other short late books are ‘about’. It doesn’t leave an awful lot to talk about: the horror of the meaninglessness of existence is hardly news, and it’s not hard to discern a faint impatience gathering in the general bookchat air about the Woody Allenish regularity with which the world’s pre-eminent English-language novelist compulsively generates these compact little blocks of predictably bleak information. Do we need this information? After all, in Exit Ghost, Zuckerman is ‘tempted by the thought of not publishing at all’.

The Observer’s reviewer suggested that the author of The Humbling should ‘be getting out of the house a bit more’. It’s a natural enough thing to yearn for: who doesn’t love the Roth who nails to the page a glove factory or a West End church at Christmas or an organic dairy herd? And the suspicion with minimalism in late work is always that it isn’t so much chosen as enforced by failing powers and, especially, by fear of repetition. But the counter-suspicion – that after a certain point, ‘getting out of the house’ is merely a displacement activity – is stronger. The Plot against America – that’s what getting out of the house really means: a well-written, conscientious novel vitiated by an air of slightly embarrassing irrelevance; a distracted novel. And while it’s possible to lament the (in all probability) permanent disappearance of the expansive, digressive, supergarrulous genius of the bigger books, we should be grateful that Roth continues to maintain his concentration on the terrible facts, on the stuff that Larkin reminded us ‘leaves/Nothing to be said’. This unprepossessing, dislikeable fiction, frequently casual and probably the least enjoyable of all Roth’s books, is nonetheless the most to-the-point, the most necessary work its author has published since The Dying Animal. Later this year, Nemesis, another short, dread-drenched novel, will (with Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling) complete what Roth has referred to as a tetralogy, and it seems as if this is going to be a real tetralogy, rather than that slightly wishful tidying-up of an oeuvre which writers and readers occasionally indulge in. There’s enough evidence of a larger design wrought through these four (is it over-determining things, for instance, to note that Nemesis takes place over a summer, that The Humbling’s one glimpse of weather is of winter, that Everyman’s strictly rationed references to times of year locate most of the action in the autumn, and that Indignation’s story of young life cut short is narrated on 31 March?) to hope that their author might collect them together under a single title and create a quartet to be read consecutively – a quartet with a brusque, unmelodic reiteration of the main theme for its third movement.

Everything in The Humbling is subordinated to the gravity of its awful dénouement which, when it comes, is made even worse by being funny. To kill yourself is no barrel of laughs at the best of times, but to have to become Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev in order to do so … It’s a hell of a humbling. Not as Hamlet or Antony or Oedipus or Ajax, but as Konstantin, whose death is so unnecessary, so petulant, such a stupid waste. This is how the ‘titan’ Axler ends, the ‘last of the best of the classical American stage actors’: reduced to ‘a preposterous, disgraced, feeble little being … a lesbian’s 13-month mistake’, and then further reduced to a silly, lovelorn, uncourageous, death-fixated mummy’s boy who doesn’t even know that the play his creator has put him in is subtitled ‘A Comedy’. Axler’s suicide is simultaneously pitiful, ridiculous and – because Axler triumphed as Konstantin on Broadway long ago, meaning that he’s channelling his own best, happiest self as well as the role – touching, which is the real twist of the knife. To add that pathos to the black, black joke is the touch of genius, because, unlike, say, the nice family who miraculously show up at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s Treplevianly bleak The Road, it doesn’t work to relieve the bleakness but to intensify it, which is the artist’s task. Inside the ruined actor, the ruined character, and inside the ruined character, the young Axler, ‘full of certainty and a sense of singularity’, with his whole life in front of him, staring down the barrel of a gun. Magic.