Philadelphia Inquirer // The Humbling by Philip Roth

My review of Philip Roth’s The Humbling ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 6.

What is left to say about Philip Roth? Along with Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, maybe Cormac McCarthy, he’s among the legends of American letters – the kind of artist capable of both describing his own era with a remarkable clarity of vision and setting the agenda for writers with the misfortune to come along after him. His vast oeuvre includes some of the greatest books produced on this landmass. American Pastoral, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Sabbath’s Theater, my personal favorite, come to mind. We’re extremely fortunate to live in his age, to see how Roth’s talents continue to reveal themselves in new and unexpected ways. He has won every prize you can think of except, so far, the Nobel. One day – not too soon, I hope – there will be prizes named afterhim.

The Humbling, Roth’s 30th book to date, is not the best Roth ever, but being Roth, it’s pretty good. Simon Axler is a 65-year-old actor of tremendous acclaim whose talent has dried up. After disastrous runs as Macbeth and Prospero, he loses his ability to perform on stage and retires to his home outside New York City. His despair and the mental breakdown that follows combine to motor this deeply engaging story. Wackiness and, this being a Philip Roth book, anxiety ensue: “When you”re playing the role of somebody coming apart, it has organization and order; when you’re observing yourself coming apart, playing the role of your own demise, that’s something else, something awash with terror and fear.”

Axler’s moping causes his wife, Victoria Powers, to leave him, and thoughts of suicide persuade him to check himself into an asylum. (Many of the names here feel a bit forced. His powers have left him! Get it?) Upon his release, he takes up with a much younger woman, Pegeen, who is the daughter of longtime friends. They first met when she was a baby; now she’s a (possibly former) lesbian whose obsessed previous lover finds new and inventive ways to intrude on their relationship. Her parents also disapprove, but Axler and Pegeen soldier on with the help of a big bag of sex toys and the assistance of a local beauty, Tracy, who joins them in the sack. The reader finds none of this quite as transgressive as it feels it’s supposed to be. Nothing is shocking anymore, at least nothing inThe Humbling.

As in many of Roth’s novels, angst threatens to overwhelm the protagonist at every turn. Roth has all but patented his own proprietary variety of angst. It comes steeped in the big-E Existential woe of Sartre and Camus (you’ll-get-nothingness-and-like-it angst) and the bleak, paralyzing horror of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films (nothing-we-do-matters angst), but Roth’s version involves despair and the disappointment of ideals (is-that-all-there-is? angst):

The worst of it was that he saw through his breakdown the same way he could see through acting. The suffering was excruciating and yet he doubted that it was genuine, which made it even worse. He did not know how he was going to get from one minute to the next, his mind felt as though it were melting, he was terrified to be alone, he could not sleep more than two or three hours a night, he scarcely ate, he thought every day of killing himself with the gun in the attic.

It’s tempting to play armchair therapist and assume that Axler’s anxiety mirrors the fears of his creator, who is very nearly the same age. Is Roth worried about losing his talent after all these years? After all, he does have a history of imaging literary super-egos – oops, I mean alter egos – in his fiction. Or perhaps Axler’s inability to perform could also signal the sexual anxiety that seems to have so much of the Viagra Generation feeling blue.

But we’re dealing with a far better writer than these simplistic explanations would allow – and, frankly, a better writer than you would think from reading just The Humbling. It feels a bit like an excerpt or like the aborted draft of a larger project. Still, it’s a vitally important addition to Philip Roth’s already amazing body of work.