Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book 10 of 52: The Humbling

I have an irrational love of Philip Roth's work.

He writes simply and directly. His flourishes are carefully constructed, re-enforcing the themes of his novels: the internal life of the mind as an agent of story-telling; blurring the boundaries between the real and imagined world; the creation of identity (through story-telling and imagination) and our responsibility and dependance upon the people around us.

I would put Roth up for the title of greatest living writer.

While The Humbling has not been highly praised by most reviewers, I think they make the mistake of viewing The Humbling as a novel. The London Times called it "an overstuffed short story" and The Guardian's reviewer wrote "it can hardly be called a novel at all; it is more an old man's sexual fantasy dressed up in the garb of literature."

I think those criticisms are valid. But I think it's the reviewers, not Roth, who have made the mistake.

The Humbling cannot stand up against Roth's best works: American Pastoral (one of my favorite books ever) and The Counterlife exist withint their own self sustaining universes. The Humbling depends upon our universe to give it heft; like a long essay (think Self-Reliance or Faulkner's Nobel speech), The Humbling depends on us to fully enter the scene.

As Roth has done so many times before, he explores the line between the world as it is and the world as we imagine it to me. This time, the world is in the midst of playing a cruel joke on Simon Axler, a once great actor who has given up on life. His talent is deserting him, and he is struggling to come to terms with life as a has-been. His identity, his self, is intertwined with his career success. Divorced, lonely, besieged by self doubt and (like so many of Roth's male protagonists) wracked by back pain, Axler's life is effectively over. Like a drowning man, he seizes the nearest piece of hope he can reach- the middle aged lesbian daughter of an old friend, who comes to visit in the midst of her own struggles with her sexual identity.

There's plenty of sex (and, as in Habibi, I found it mostly off-putting). But the core of the book is Axler's struggle to control the narrative of his life, even as he realizes that he is no longer a leading player. He deludes himself into believing that the events of his own life are more meaningful, more empowering than they really are. When his lover leaves him at the understated climax of the book, it carries the weight of inevitability. Reality is hard on the self-deceived.

There come points in our life when we realize that we are not in control, that despite our best efforts everything is spiraling away from us. I can count three times in my life that I look back on with confusion because I don't recognize the person who was making my decisions day after day; once I skidded to a stop, once an unexpected opportunity allowed me to change course, once I crashed badly. These moments are bound to continue throughout life, and, unless I am luckier than I deserve to be, some calamity or infirmity will ultimately kill me (at a very old age, I hope).

In the face of failing control, some people become religious, some people curse the fates. Simon Axler shoots himself, alone in his attic with only dashed hopes for company. He made the best world he could for himself, but it was a lousy one, largely (I think) because it was a world he built alone. There were other people around him, but he didn't share his internal space with anyone. No one really gets to choose the terms on which they exit the stage, Roth suggests, but our choices throughout life will be echoed back to us eventually.

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