Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Everyman by Philip Roth

'The pitiful middle-aged wife, embittered by rejection, consumed by rotten jealousy! Raging! Repugnant! Oh, I hate you for that more than anything. Go away, leave this house. I can't bear the sight of you with that satyr-on-his-good-behavior look on your face! You'll get no absolution from me--never! I will not be trifled with any longer! Go, please! Leave me alone!'"

Lest you think for a moment that I've mistyped the author's name, the preceding excerpt was indeed written by Philip Roth, not Tom Wolfe (pause for nervous book-nerd laughter). Everyman is the second book I've read by Roth, and, in addition to not being particularly compelling in general, it suffered especially following the very interesting The Counterlife.

Everyman, in spite of its inclusive title, is the story of one very specific man, the son of a Jewish jeweler from Newark. The protagonist, never given a name and heretofore referred to as Philip, has an generous and loving older brother whom he resents for his sterling health, a string of jilted wives and lovers, each one sacrificed upon the altar of youth and sexual desire, a daughter who is forgiving to a fault, and a laundry list of medical conditions and hospital visits that take up the bulk of Everyman's already slim 180 pages.

Roth is aging, and, since many of his protagonists are doppelgangers of himself, his avatars are aging as well. Roth's preoccupation with death and the capital-E End are the centerpieces of the work, the themes completely overpowering any overarching storyline. Instead, the story starts at Philip's funeral and then jumps back to his childhood, recounting a series of vignettes interspersed with the aforementioned hospital visits. The interesting thing about these glimpses into the past is that most of them don't do much to round out the character of Philip. In a book so tightly-focused, I expected a character study, some deep insight into the everyman of the story, but instead, Roth's chosen episodes don't do much more than illustrate Philip's selfish attitude and his willingness to betray and injure anyone or anything that would prevent his carnal pleasures.

In the closing pages, Philip calls friends he's known, each one sicker than the last, and talks to them about their lives, but he never achieves any sort of profundity. On the subject of religion, Roth deigns to say nothing more than that it is childish. Friends are disposable, there to talk to if situations grow too bleak, but can be used as stepping stones with no remorse. Women are challenges, puzzles that become nothing but yesterday's static image when completed. Philip regrets that he can no longer sleep with 25-year-old girls and that he will never match his brother's success. The lives he's wrecked, the things he's sacrificed, not a thought for them. That's the problem with Roth's everyman: He doesn't want to die, but, seeing his life in panorama, it's hard for me to care. Not all stories need a likable protagonist; everything is not a tale of redemption, but with Everyman, I can't help but wonder what Roth was shooting for. His themes are writ large: DEATH, OLD AGE, SICKNESS, but the themes are ends in themselves, and are barely explored in the narrative itself, which essentially concludes that death is to be avoided and old age sucks. Philip himself is nothing special either. His character fails to illustrate anything unique. In that sense, he is the everyman promised in the title. At the same time, he fails as a prototype because he's either a strawman made up of a repulsive stew of attributes no average man would exhibit, or a terrible person whose death doesn't seem terribly tragic to anyone but him.

In the end, when Philip goes in for his final operation, we are told:

He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without knowing it. Just as he'd feared from the start.

As a nihilist tract, Everyman succeeds admirably. As a piece of literature, I confess, the message eludes me.

5 comments:

Nathan said...

"Entering into nowhere without knowing it." That's so damn chilling. I've been meaning to read this for a long time. It sounds like Philip is that repulsive stew of attributes so that he can be representative of what the fear of death can drive people to. Me want read this.

Elizabeth said...

Do it. It will take about an hour.

Christopher said...

Nathan want to go to there

Christopher said...

Between this and Counterlife, I probably would have picked up this. But honestly, Roth's sentiments about religion seem a little off-putting to me.

Nihil Novum said...

Based on these two, Roth's sentiments on religion seem very simplistic. His other work might delve into it a bit more.