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Roth’s Last Stand

February 21, 2007, 12:00 am
Philip Roth goes medieval in his latest novel.

Readers of Philip Roth will find themselves in familiar territory right from the start of his newest novel: "Around the ***image1***grave, in the rundown cemetery." While Roth has been circling around the subject of death and dying for half a century, Everyman is his most focused meditatio mortem to date.

Roth's Everyman adapts and modernizes the 15th century morality play of the same name. Medieval moral dramas personify virtues, vices and pretty much everything else, and in the original Everyman, the protagonist receives a divinely ordered visit from Death incarnate and is called to give an account of his life and deeds. In Roth's version, Death is not personified, but it is certainly omnipresent and palpable enough to spur his protagonist to survey and weigh a lifetime of choices. Throughout, Roth maintains the seriousness and directness of the original while thoroughly secularizing the Catholic drama.

The other major influence on Everyman is Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, and both works succeed in demonstrating the complex and sometimes disturbing views of the living toward the dying, and vice versa. Roth copies Tolstoy by opening with the death of his protagonist, and Roth's first 15 pages could stand on their own as an excellent short story about a few acquaintances and family members who attend the funeral.

From there, the novel jumps back 10 years. In keeping with the intended universal reach of the Everyman tradition, Roth's protagonist knows himself to be "an average human being." This particular man, however, is an atheist, a Jew and a retired ***image3***advertising executive with a great passion-and modest talent-for painting. He believes that marriage is forever, yet he has been married and divorced three times. He has two resentful sons from his first marriage who have never forgiven him for leaving, as well as a devoted daughter from his second marriage who seems to be one of the few consolations of his old age.

The significance of these details, however, soon begins to fade: "He was still only in his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seemed threatened all the time. He'd married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he'd been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story."

In what follows, Roth practically invents a new genre of fiction: med lit. He investigates that stage of life when people's "personal biographies" become "identical with their medical biographies," and he details the physical ailments and medical histories of even minor characters with the kind of precision that other authors often use to describe what each character is wearing when he or she enters a room. Roth couldn't care less whether a necktie is Armani or Calvin Klein, but he does want us to know whether a person suffers from occasional migraines or from debilitating back pain. All of this makes a bit more sense in a book that is narrated with the same sensibility of its main character, who tolerates "no hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. ***image2***There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by other bodies that had lived and died before us."

This stark look at the "adversary that is illness and the calamity that waits in the wings" reveals a view of aging as a period of eroding dignity, and signals the overwhelming difficulty of resisting embarrassment as the body and mind become uncooperative and as we become "less and less." In short: "Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre," about which we can do nothing other than "just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There's no other way."

Several of the characters in the novel fail to become more than caricatures-either airbrushed idealizations or one-dimensional ingrates-giving us little reason to care about them. But then, it seems that Roth himself doesn't really care, as he is too busy sending back dispatches from the grizzly front. As a result, Everyman might not offer Roth at his best, but it is still the work of a modern master illuminating the corners of our own predictable endings.


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