The counterlife

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

AH, longevity. Without it, we would have to think differently about Philip Roth. Despite the success and notoriety (and, yes, outright brilliance) of “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” his early career is, frankly, spotty, marked by minor efforts (“Our Gang,” “The Breast”) and books such as “When She Was Good” and “My Life as a Man” that never seem to find their way. Indeed, it was only with the 1979 publication of “The Ghost Writer,” the first of his novels to feature Nathan Zuckerman, that Roth uncovered what has become the center of his work.

It’s not that he wasn’t ambitious; he didn’t call his 1973 baseball fantasia “The Great American Novel” for nothing, after all. Yet to look back at Roth’s writing of the 1960s and 1970s is to see a writer in chrysalis, testing out themes and ideas -- the relationship of Jewishness and Americanness, the interplay between art and identity, the ongoing struggle of the self to define itself -- that he would get at with far greater acuity in his later work.

Longevity, of course, is now a hallmark of Roth’s writing, and not only because his oeuvre stretches over 50 years. Roth himself has addressed it directly in his last two novels, the exquisite “Everyman,” which came out last year, and the newly published “Exit Ghost.” Both books deal with death, with aging, not as metaphor but as fact. “The end is so immense,” a character notes in “Exit Ghost,” “it is its own poetry. It requires little rhetoric. Just state it plainly.”

This is what Roth did in “Everyman,” which begins with its protagonist’s funeral before working back into his life. And he’s after something similar with “Exit Ghost,” which comes billed as the ninth, and last, book to feature Zuckerman, Roth’s de facto alter ego, reclusive author of the infamous “Carnovsky,” a novel that has more than a little bit in common with “Portnoy’s Complaint.” It’s a common, if understandable, error to read the Zuckerman books as thinly veiled autobiography, fiction as memoir. In fact, Roth is engaged in a more fundamental process -- to present “rumination in narrative form.” As Zuckerman suggests halfway through the novel: “For some very, very few that amplification [of fiction], evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.”

“Exit Ghost” opens days before the 2004 presidential election, as Zuckerman returns to Manhattan for a medical procedure after an absence of 11 years. He’s been sitting out the present at his retreat in the Berkshires, reading, writing, thinking in splendid isolation, apart from “everything I’d determined I no longer had use for: Here and Now.” For Zuckerman, stability is everything; like E. I. Lonoff, the writer he visits in “The Ghost Writer,” he finds solace in the habits of routine.


And yet, Roth means to tell us, routine is often just a way around temptation, a ruse that lets us believe we’re in control of ourselves, when in reality we’re not. Zuckerman comes face to face with this on his first night in the city, when on a whim he answers a personal ad in the New York Review of Books and agrees to swap houses with a young married couple, a deal that grows increasingly complicated when he becomes infatuated with Jamie, the wife. This is typical Roth, but here it comes with a twist, for Zuckerman is impotent, a prostate cancer survivor, and as such feels unable to pursue a relationship except in his imagination.

In the past, imagination has been Zuckerman’s salvation -- and by extension Roth’s as well. The novels of the Zuckerman Trilogy (“The Ghost Writer,” “Zuckerman Unbound” and “The Anatomy Lesson,” which were collected in 1985, along with the novella “The Prague Orgy,” as “Zuckerman Bound” and are being reissued by the Library of America simultaneously with the publication of “Exit Ghost”) are all about imagination, its pleasures and its risks. In “The Ghost Writer,” Zuckerman, 23 and the author of four short stories, spends the night at the home of his idol Lonoff, where he fantasizes that another guest, a young woman named Amy Bellette, is really Anne Frank, miraculously alive. Although he knows this is invention, he’s swept up in its air of possibility.

With “Exit Ghost,” however, Roth intends to look through the other end of the telescope, offering not possibility so much as its opposite. Zuckerman is 73, no longer certain of his literary powers. He’s not dying, not yet anyway, but he is decaying, memory going, increasingly dependent on a “chore book,” in which he records the ephemera of his daily life. He’s not the only one; no sooner does he arrive in New York than he sees Amy, now 75, “a sinuous surgical scar cut[ting] a serpentine line across her skull.” Get ready, Roth is saying, this is what awaits us, this double vision, this sense of loss. “Amy is no longer beautiful or in possession of all of her brain,” Zuckerman comments. “I no longer have the totality of my mental functions or my virility or my continence. . . . All of us are now ‘no-longers’ . . . losing faculties, losing control, shamefully dispossessed.”

That’s a powerful conceit, the unflinching observation of a life at the point of retraction, in which the present is less real than the past. Roth makes this explicit in the scenes with Amy, for whom the long-dead Lonoff (once her lover) is still an active force. Even now, she talks to him, and, in one of the novel’s finest touches, channels his voice when she writes letters to the New York Times.

Unfortunately, as the book progresses, it loses focus, not unlike Zuckerman himself. Part of the problem is its close relationship with “The Ghost Writer,” since we can’t help but hold “Exit Ghost” up against its predecessor’s white-hot intensity and sense of desire. But more to the point, Roth loses his authority when he writes about Zuckerman’s infatuation with Jamie, which comes off as unseemly and out of place. Imagination aside, his obsession is oddly adolescent, less the expression of an old man yearning for something he’s forever lost than of a horny schoolboy, fixated on her physical charms.

Roth compounds the issue by having Zuckerman compose an imaginary dialogue between himself and her, which is interspersed through the novel as a script titled “He and She.” As always with Roth, there are antecedents; this, Zuckerman informs us, is the name of a Chekhov story, although, tellingly, he can’t recall what it’s about. Yet what “He and She” most brings to mind is Roth’s disastrous 1990 novel “Deception,” which was also written as a dialogue between an older man and a younger woman. For all this, there is something compelling about how Roth’s fiction has begun to echo itself, like the play of memory in the mind. It’s a development I first noticed with “Everyman,” which, at novella-length and taking place, primarily, in Newark and elsewhere in northern New Jersey, feels like a companion piece to “Goodbye, Columbus” through the filter of 47 years. With “Exit Ghost,” Roth compounds that sense of time’s fluidity, the way we live at all stages of our lives at once.

Longevity again, I suppose, but there is no longevity without perseverance, which is, in the end, what this imperfect novel is about. “And along the way, like Amy, like Lonoff . . . like everyone in the cemetery who had braved the feat and the task, I would die too,” Zuckerman acknowledges, “though not before I sat down at the desk by the window . . . and before my ebbing memory receded completely -- wrote the final scene of ‘He and She.’ ”