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'The Humbling' by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 140 pp., $22
"He'd lost his magic," begins Philip Roth's elegant and brutal new novella, launching right into the downfall of its protagonist, Simon Axler, a celebrated sixtysomething actor. "Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail." Axler's talent and instincts have deserted him without warning, and the result is humiliation that Roth describes with icy and almost fiendish glee. "His Macbeth was ludicrous and everyone who saw it said as much, and so did many who didn't."
Axler suffers not so much a loss of confidence as the terrible conviction that he never had any talent at all. He wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, and when he looks back at his life, he sees only a catalog of mistakes that add up to the one big mistake he now feels himself to be. He's severely depressed, a condition that "The Humbling" (some title!) evokes with shivering accuracy. "All that had worked to make him himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic," Roth writes, and the sentence (in both senses of the word) is intricately balanced and perfectly wrought, brilliant and hilarious, yet punitive.
Roth is a language wizard and a stern moral judge, and the message he's recently been bringing us about the process of getting old subverts the traditional mythology. In "Everyman," "Exit Ghost" and now "The Humbling," age does not bring wisdom to characters, and foresight fails to protect them.
Axler's breakdown is colossal. His back is shot, his wife leaves him and he checks into a psychiatric hospital where, in art therapy class, he encounters other would-be suicides whose plight is perhaps even worse than his own: "Everybody else would be sitting there gloomily silent, inwardly intense and rehearsing to themselves -- in the lexicon of pop psychology or gutter obscenity or paranoid pathology -- the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealousy, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor and grief." High and low -- it's what Philip Roth has always been about; in his fiction Clytemnestra is likely to come from Kansas, while an actor who's starred in Hollywood movies is filled with the kind of despair in which Dostoevski specialized.
Axler returns to his lonely farmhouse, surrounded by 50 empty acres, a retreat that has become a prison. He meets a younger woman, Pegeen, until now a lesbian, the daughter of old friends and colleagues, and they begin an affair that revives Axler and starts to rehabilitate him. Axler has felt emptied out, and Pegeen starts to fill him up. He buys her clothes (shades of "Vertigo," Hitchcock's classic study of obsession) and their lovemaking soon turns into risky role-playing.
People, Roth warns, are "instinctively strategic," especially when it comes to relationship control and power, and Axler fails to spot that he's dealing with a sexual gunslinger who will always get the first shot. Pegeen's bold erotic charm disarms and delights him, opening an abyss into which he first looks and then plunges. In the bedroom his partner is "a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal"; she's not only "the wielder of the cat-o'-nine-tails" but also a "connoisseur" of sex toys. Will this play out well? Are you kidding? Axler nudges Pegeen to pick up a stranger, prompting a giddy ménage à trois that re-creates, in much darker and almost surreal colors, a situation that Roth has used before (notably in "The Professor of Desire") and triggers the disaster that maybe Axler has wanted all along.
Ideas of tragic pleasure and comic pain have always been inextricably bound in Roth's work. Go back 50 years. Toward the end of "Goodbye, Columbus," which launched Roth's career with almost outrageous panache, his narrator asks himself: "What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing -- who knows -- into winning?"
"The Humbling" poses much the same questions about how life's inexplicable and unexpected turns affect character, except what's at stake here is no longer the loss of innocence. Faced with his failure as an actor, Simon Axler starts to play the role of his own demise. Life might not be packaged in plots, but death can be, he comes to realize. He rages against his dying light but really blames only himself, "disgraced, feeble little being that he was, a lesbian's thirteen-month mistake."
Readers, according to their taste, may find the sex scenes in "The Humbling" shocking or arousing or just plain silly. On the one hand, Roth's 30th book deals with themes that his work, especially his recent work, has made familiar. On the other, it's direct and urgent, a taut and controlled fever-dream that demands to be experienced at a single sitting. "The Humbling" is divided into three chapters, three acts almost, and near the end the name of Chekhov is invoked, reminding us that a gun that's been shown at the beginning of the tale is likely to go off by the end. And the gun duly does, leaving the reader with feelings of terror and exhilaration in equal measure.
Roth is a master, and relentless. Now in his mid-70s, he may be waiting for some new "American Pastoral" or "The Human Stain," another big, sweeping masterwork, to take hold in his mind and carry him away. Meanwhile, he never stops working. His next book, another short one in this cycle that considers the proximity of death, is already written and is called -- a title that will again draw a wincing smile -- "Nemesis." Don't expect a happy ending.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place" and writes the Paperback Writers column, which appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.