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Why Can’t All Writers Be This Good?

The HumblingThe Humbling by Philip Roth

Reviewed by Rhian Ellis
Identity Theory

There are a handful of writers I read not because of the stories they tell, or for their memorable characters, or for their ability to evoke a time or place, but because I really enjoy being inside their heads. Alice Munro is one of these writers--her characters are vividly real but not especially distinctive, and if you read a lot of her work, they all blur together. Things happen in her stories, but the plots feel secondary to how the narrator interprets them. And to be honest, if I had to choose a time and place to read about, rural 20th century Canada would not spring to mind. But I find Munro's work--almost every word of it--utterly compelling. It's because her stories are about what it's like to be in a particular mind, to have a particular consciousness. Her noticing, her interpreting, is always new and shocking and revelatory, and right and true.

Philip Roth is another of these writers. I have no special interest in the urban, post-war, sex-obsessed white male (most of Roth's characters, like Munro's, feel like versions of the author), and with some exceptions (The Plot Against America, and American Pastoral), his novels are not notably plot-heavy. But again: there is something absolutely irresistible about his prose. I eat it up. Usually a few pages into one of his books, I find myself saying to myself, or to the person on the couch next to me: Why can't all writers be this good? It's so simple! There are no fireworks in Roth's prose, no lyricism, no fancy metaphors. But there are also no lies, no fakery, no bullshit. Reading Roth is like being instantly transferred into another mind, a mind in which all the boring crap has been burned away. It's mesmerizing and stimulating and exciting and soothing all at once.

If I were James Wood, I would hack away at the mystery of Roth's brilliance until I had it all worked out, but I'm not and I won't. Let's just say that Philip Roth is probably our time's premier cartographer of human consciousness.

Roth's latest book, his 30th, is The Humbling, a short, searing novel about an actor who loses his ability to act. Performance problems, in one sense or another, are a familiar theme in Roth's work, but unlike Zuckerman's sexual impotence, which is caused by prostate cancer, Simon Axler's inability to perform has no clear cause. It just happens; one day he no longer believes in his ability to inhabit a role, and with this lack of confidence everything falls apart. His acting feels like an “act”:

"And now he dreaded every performance, and dreaded it all day long. He spent the entire day thinking thoughts he'd never thought before a performance in his life: I won't make it, I won't be able to do it, I'm playing the wrong roles, I'm overreaching, I'm faking, I have no idea even how to do the first line... He would hear the cue coming closer and closer and know that he couldn't do it. He waited for the freedom to begin and the moment to become real, he waited to forget who he was and become the person doing it, but instead he was standing there, completely empty, doing the kind of acting you do when you don't know what you are doing... Acting had become a night-after-night exercise in trying to get away with something."

All this leads to a breakdown, but then the breakdown itself feel like an act: “he saw through his breakdown the same way he could see through his acting. The suffering was excruciating and yet he doubted it was genuine, which made it even worse.” Soon he becomes suicidal, he wife leaves, and he ends up a psychiatric hospital.

It's hard not to see acting here as a metaphor for writing, or at least as a kind of parallel to writing. The actor, Axler, seems to have a very convincing case of writer's block. Writing and acting both rely on the ability to convince, and in order to convince others of the truth behind your act, you have to convince yourself. How to convince yourself that you are telling the truth when you know you are acting, or making things up, is the strange thing about these arts, one that doesn't bear too much close examination. In acting, as in writing, and even in sex, self-consciousness is a killer, but it's also a natural result of the self-exposure these arts (or acts, in the case of sex) entail.

Of course, the idea of Roth writing about writers block is ironic to say the least; the man is 76 and is still churning out fiction of the highest quality every year (his next novel, Nemesis, is already slated for publication in 2010). Most writers settle on either quality or quantity; Roth, magically, has chosen both. He's the last writer you'd expect to know what writer's block is like. But perhaps this explains why his books seem to be getting shorter, even as they're becoming more frequent: he's haunted, like many writers, by the specter of the tap turning off. Better to get it all out now, while he can. This is all speculation, of course, and it's probably misguided to speculate about Roth's motives or biography. Because of how similar he appears to his characters, though, it's hard not to. When he wrote so convincingly about Zuckerman's health problems and impotence, reporters asked if Roth himself had cancer, which he did not.

Which brings us to the sex. Roth has been known, at least since Portnoy's Complaint, as a writer of sex. His latest several books, however, have been as much about death as about sex. It works, and it makes sense: the sex lightens the death and makes it bearable, and the death lends gravity to the sex. Sex is a way of escaping, temporarily anyway, from death. In The Humbling, Simon Axler finds a way to escape the death of his career through Pegeen, a younger woman, the daughter of friends, who comes to visit him one day and stays. For a while, Axler is happy again, though he still can't act. But Pegeen had just left a lesbian relationship, and the mystery of it--does Pegeen really want him, an old, failing man, or is it an act, too?--plagues their relationship. “What is the draw of a woman like this to a man who is losing so much?” he wonders. “Wasn't he making her pretend to be something other than who she was?” To the reader, it's just a matter of time before she, too, fails in her new role.

Sex, specifically the male experience of sex, is important to Roth and he writes about it well, but this is the second book in a row that, to this reader anyway, seemed marred by an episode of implausible, fantasy sex. In Indignation, the hospitalized narrator receives a hand job in a scene that feels lifted straight from the Penthouse letters page. It could easily have been a dream sequence. And in The Humbling, there's a similar scene: with apologies for the spoiler, it's a threesome. I wasn't convinced by it. I couldn't believe it would happen this way, so smoothly and free of angst and awkwardness and logistical problems. So why does it belong in this novel, which is otherwise so rigorously realistic? My sense is that Roth just likes sex and wants to write about it. But he is such a competent writer, I don't feel like I can leave it at that. What are these sex scenes about, then? They must be a counterpoint to death--death, too, is fantastic, bizarre, and unlikely. With Roth it's not life versus death--it's sex versus death. His books climax with climax, just as they end with death.

But his preoccupation with sex is ultimately limiting, because he's preoccupied with male sex, and in his books female sex is necessarily mysterious. The character of Pegeen is a strong and fascinating one, but like most women in Roth's novels, she is a cipher--her consciousness is never plunged. In the case of The Humbling, we are stuck in the mind of the less interesting character. Roth's focus on male sex keeps us from what might be a better, fuller story. But wanting Philip Roth to inhabit the consciousnesses of women as well as he does men truly is asking too much. For that I'll read Alice Munro.

Rhian Ellis is a writer and book store clerk in Ithaca, NY. She blogs at

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Humbling
    Sale Hardcover $5.98
  2. The Plot against America: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  3. American Pastoral
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  4. Indignation (Vintage International)
    Used Trade Paper $7.50

One Response to "Why Can’t All Writers Be This Good?"

    s h a r o n November 28th, 2009 at 5:30 am


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