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Everymanby Philip Roth
"The upside, of course, is that Roth is the best fiction writer America has ever produced. And Everyman is fiction as calligraphy, a ribbon of memory spun from a single stroke across a couple hundred pages, encircling, and entombing, a life." Scott Raab, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
"Let's use a noun I've never used before: masterpiece. Whereas Roth's prize-laden recent fictions are a tad manipulative, in Everyman there is never any sense of a novelist trying to write a novel. Every sentence is urgent, essential, almost nonfictional....Everyman is therefore that rarest of literary achievements: a novel that disappears as it progresses, leaving in one's hands only the matters of life and death it describes." Joseph O'Neill, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Everyman is in places quite beautiful, illuminated by that fine precision and relative spareness of language that has characterized Roth's work in his late phase. Like some of that work, notably The Human Stain and American Pastoral, it starts well and ends even better, but it leaves the muddle of a middle somewhere behind it, like a sloughed skin....Despite some undeniably moving passages, the novella fails to gather its power: the sum of its parts is not finally as affecting as the parts themselves." James Wood, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
"Everyman is Roth's attempt to modernize The Death of Ivan Ilych. Although it lacks the terrible grandeur of Tolstoy's story, Roth's version might be set at a still lower temperature....Perhaps the only weakness in Everyman is that there isn't really, in the end, any argument to keep up — which is another way of saying that Philip Roth has reached the limit of what he can be funny about." Benjamin Markovits, The Times Literary Supplement (read the entire TLS review)
Synopses & Reviews
Philip Roth's new novel is a candidly intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism. The best-selling author of The Plot Against America now turns his attention from "one family's harrowing encounter with history" (New York Times) to one man's lifelong skirmish with mortality.
The fate of Roth's everyman is traced from his first shocking confrontation with death on the idyllic beaches of his childhood summers, through the family trials and professional achievements of his vigorous adulthood, and into his old age, when he is rended by observing the deterioration of his contemporaries and stalked by his own physical woes.
A successful commercial artist with a New York ad agency, he is the father of two sons from a first marriage who despise him and a daughter from a second marriage who adores him. He is the beloved brother of a good man whose physical well-being comes to arouse his bitter envy, and he is the lonely ex-husband of three very different women with whom he's made a mess of marriage. In the end he is a man who has become what he does not want to be.
The terrain of this powerful novel — Roth's twenty-seventh book and the fifth to be published in the twenty-first century — is the human body. Its subject is the common experience that terrifies us all.
Everyman takes its title from an anonymous fifteenth-century allegorical play, a classic of early English drama, whose theme is the summoning of the living to death.
"What is it about Philip Roth? He has published 27 books, almost all of which deal with the same topics — Jewishness, Americanness, sex, aging, family — and yet each is simultaneously familiar and new. His latest novel is a slim but dense volume about a sickly boy who grows up obsessed with his and everybody else's health, and eventually dies in his 70s, just as he always said he would. (I'm not giving anything away here; the story begins with the hero's funeral.) It might remind you of the old joke about the hypochondriac who ordered his tombstone to read: 'I told you I was sick.' And yet, despite its coy title, the book is both universal and very, very specific, and Roth watchers will not be able to stop themselves from comparing the hero to Roth himself. (In most of his books, whether written in the third person or the first, a main character is a tortured Jewish guy from Newark — like Roth.) The unnamed hero here is a thrice-married adman, a father and a philanderer, a 70-something who spends his last days lamenting his lost prowess (physical and sexual), envying his healthy and beloved older brother, and refusing to apologize for his many years of bad behavior, although he palpably regrets them. Surely some wiseacre critic will note that he is Portnoy all grown up, an amalgamation of all the womanizing, sex- and death-obsessed characters Roth has written about (and been?) throughout his career. But to obsess about the parallels between author and character is to miss the point: like all of Roth's works, even the lesser ones, this is an artful yet surprisingly readable treatise on...well, on being human and struggling and aging at the beginning of the new century. It also borrows devices from his previous works — there's a sequence about a gravedigger that's reminiscent of the glove-making passages in American Pastoral, and many observations will remind careful readers of both Patrimony and The Dying Animal — and through it all, there's that Rothian voice: pained, angry, arrogant and deeply, wryly funny. Nothing escapes him, not even his own self-seriousness. 'Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work,' he has his adman-turned-art-teacher opine about an annoying student. Obviously, Roth himself is a professional." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Philip Roth's 27th novel is a marvel of brevity, admirable for its elegant style and composition (no surprise), but remarkable above all for its audacity and ambition. It seizes unflinchingly on one of the least agreeable subjects in the domain of the novel — the natural deterioration of the body. But beyond that, 'Everyman' can be seen as a bid to engage conclusively with the core anxieties that... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the literary novel exists to confront: How, absent the shadow of God, in new and confusing brightness, shall we decide what we are, how we human animals should judge ourselves and whether we can love our species despite everything? 'Everyman' begins with its hero's end, his interment. Only three of the graveside mourners speak — the dead man's daughter, his second wife and his older brother. Ordinary puzzlement, sadness and resignation are expressed: 'That was the end. No special point had been made.' What follows is a summary retrospective of the protagonist's life. We see him as a dutiful good son who, yielding to his parents' wishes, sets aside his artistic aspirations and, after a tour of duty in the Navy, goes to work in advertising. He prospers, ultimately becoming creative director of a major New York-based firm. His infidelities figure in the breakups of at least two of his three marriages. Along the way, he fathers two sons (they reject him with bitterness for having left their mother) and a hapless daughter, who adores him. His health abruptly worsens when he is in his early fifties and he has to live through 20 years of episodic but severe medical interventions: many surgeries, including a quintuple bypass. His medical miseries dominate his life. He retreats to an upscale retirement community on the Jersey shore and devotes himself to painting (until he concludes that he has nothing to say in that medium) and to teaching painting to his fellow residents. He hears of colleagues declining, beginning to die off. A last operation for a carotid blockage is fatal. Roth has taken great pains to craft an archetypical American life for his readers to contemplate. The nameless protagonist 'was reasonable and kindly, an amicable, moderate, industrious man,' Roth writes. 'He never thought of himself as anything more than an average human being.' He is l'homme moyen sensuel to perfection, neither good nor bad — or, rather, about as good as he is bad. He has served his country. He has no visible politics. He is unreligious (he gave up attending synagogue after his bar mitzvah). He has met his obligations — his material obligations — to his immediate families, but he has made no wider benefactions that we hear of. In his thought-life, there's nothing distinctive. He is reasonably stoical about his medical ordeals, which are brought to life in harrowing detail by the author, but toward the end he is less stoical. There is, in truth, more on the negative side of his ledger than on the credit side. He is self-centered to a fault. In conscious envy of his beloved elder brother's robust health, he turns against this man who has been his sole steadfast friend. He deceives his wives. And he asserts a comfortably exculpatory determinism when he thinks over the many missteps in his life: 'There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us. If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for himself, that was it — he'd come upon it early and intuitively, and however elemental, that was the whole of it. Should he ever write an autobiography, he'd call it "The Life and Death of a Male Body."' Finally, he is insular. He seems never to apprehend that he is suffering at a privileged level, that great medical coverage means everything when the bad luck begins. Still, it is for some purpose that we are conducted through the salient parts of a life not interesting in itself. What do we say, as readers, waving farewell to this man? What assessment do we make of his life? It's a feat, but through this clinically secular morality tale, Roth manages to extract love and pity for his created mortal. Bravura descriptions of his skirmishes with death skillfully penetrate the readers' normal, reflexive resistance to such images. Although our hero continues to fine-tune his rationalizations, his remorse — powerfully depicted — breaks through. And virtuoso lyrical passages capture the protagonist's yearning for the strength and joy of his youth: 'Nothing could extinguish the vitality of that boy whose slender little torpedo of an unscathed body once rode the big Atlantic waves from a hundred yards out in the wild ocean all the way in to shore. Oh, the abandon of it, and the smell of the salt water and the scorching sun! Daylight, he thought, penetrating everywhere, day after summer day of that daylight blazing off a living sea, an optical treasure so vast and valuable that he could have been peering through the jeweler's loupe engraved with his father's initials at the perfect, priceless planet itself — at his home, the billion-, the trillion-, the quadrillion-carat planet Earth!' Through consummate art, Roth elevates the links that bind his protagonist to us, the readers who judge his life. From a distance, 'Everyman' looks like a shaggy dog story — a long, quotidian story whose meaning resides in its final pointlessness. Up close, though, it is a parable that captures, as few works of fiction have, the pathos of Being, as it's manifested even in the favored precincts of affluent America. Norman Rush is the author of the short story collection 'Whites' and of the novels 'Mating' and 'Mortals.' He is at work on a new novel, 'Subtle Bodies.'", Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Roth continues exercising his career-defining, clear-eyed, intelligent vision of how the psychology of families works....Perhaps...more readers will find this lean, poignant novel more relevant to themselves." Booklist
"This risky novel is significantly marred by redundancy and discursiveness...but energized by vivid writing, palpable emotional intensity and several wrenching scenes....A rich exploration of the epiphany that awaits us all — that 'life's most disturbing intensity is death.'" Kirkus Reviews
"This brilliant little morality play on the ways that our bodies dictate the paths our lives take is vintage Roth; essential for every fiction collection." Library Journal
"In the course of Everyman Mr. Roth captures the more depressing aspects of aging....But these harrowing evocations of age and infirmity do not a novel make. This book often reads like a laundry list of complaints about the human condition." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"One of the literary lessons of The Great Gatsby is that in the right hands, a short novel can have deep impact. Everyman...is no instant classic, but it dives similarly deep and makes an indelible impression." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"It's far from Roth's best work, but it contains flashes of the writing that earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1997....
"Everyman is a swift, brutal novel about a heartbreakingly ordinary subject, and it is also testament to Roth that the book leaves you a little breathless and not at all bereft." The Boston Globe
"The new novel clocks in at a slim 182 pages, yet it is packed densely with observations and recriminations....It is the empathy that Roth creates for this seemingly unsympathetic character that drives the novel to its extraordinary heights." Providence Journal
"Everyman continues his recent streak of notable books. And although Roth is far from always perfect, the book is further proof he will be remembered and re-read." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Everyman is vintage Roth: full of passion, anger and vivid details of lives well lived and profoundly screwed up....Everyman doesn't exactly brim with happy, fun fun. However, fans of serious fiction...know to hunt down other forms of satisfaction." Rocky Mountain News
"I'm thirty-four! Worry about oblivion, he told himself, when you're seventy-five."
Philip Roth's new novel is a fiercely intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism. The best-selling author of The Plot Against America now turns his attention from "one family's harrowing encounter with history" (New York Times) to one man's lifelong confrontation with mortality.
Roth's everyman is a hero whose youthful sense of independence and confidence begins to be challenged when illness commences its attack in middle age. A successful commercial advertising artist, he is the father of two sons who despise him and a daughter who adores him. He is the brother of a good man whose physical well-being comes to arouse his bitter envy. He is the lonely ex-husband of three very different women with whom he has made a mess of marriage. Inevitably, he discovers that he has become what he does not want to be.
Roth has been hailed as "the most compelling of living writers....[His] every book is like a dispatch from the deepest recesses of the national mind." In Everyman, Roth once again displays his hallmark incisiveness. From his first glimpse of death on the idyllic beaches of his childhood summers, through his vigorous, seemingly invincible prime, Roth's hero is a man bewildered not only by his own decline but by the unimaginable deaths of his contemporaries and those he has loved. The terrain of this haunting novel is the human body. Its subject is the common experience that terrifies us all.
About the Author
In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House, and in 2002 received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, among others. He has twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Roth's recent work includes The Human Stain (2000) and The Dying Animal (2001). In 2005 The Plot Against America won the Society of American Historians' award for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme in 20032004." Also in 2005 Philip Roth became the third living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. The last of the eight volumes is scheduled for publication in 2013.
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