Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Exit Ghost

This was without a doubt one of the most depressing books I've read in the past year! How can I recommend it? Philip Roth does this to me every time. He writes so real and true that when I finish one of his books I feel devastated, actually worn out by the angst of the characters. But isn't that the sign of a great writer? You really need to read one or two of his novels just to see how the greats of literature do it.

Exit Ghost is the final entry in the long, incredible series of books featuring Nathan Zuckerman, the Jewish American "everyman," who critics say is Roth's alter ego. Included in this series are two of my all-time favorite novels, American Pastoral and The Human Stain. These novels tackle every major historical happening of the twentieth century and their influence on those of our generation. (oops, guess I shouldn't assume that all my readers are middle aged!)

I've never had the courage to feature either of these books in my book discussion series here at the library. I guess I didn't have the confidence to tackle such a talented and prolific author.

I did finally choose to discuss The Plot Against America, a look at what might have happened to our country under the presidential mantle of anti-Semite Charles Lindburgh rather than Franklin Roosevelt. One of the few Roth novels that received less than stellar reviews, this work actually was the most autobiographical of all Roth's fiction, written as it was about his family and growing up outside of Newark, NJ, in the '40's.


In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman's life has been deeply changed by his surgery for prostate cancer. He's walked away from his frenetic life in New York City to settle in what would seem to be an idyllic farmhouse retreat in the Berkshires. There he eschews television, newspapers, politics, women or friends, to ostensibly concentrate on his writing. Instead, he fixates on the very real, uncomfortable and maddening results of his surgery.

As a woman and former breast cancer patient, I am appalled with myself for seldom giving a second thought to a cancer that only affects men. Even those women not caught up in body image live in fear of hearing that they might lose a breast. Yet it's only cosmetic and can be reconstructed if one so desires.

Through a continuous interior monologue, Zuckerman describes the nerve damage that has rendered him both impotent and incontinent, along with the subsequent despair that has him retreating from life. Roth is so eloquent on this subject that I broke down several times while listening to George Guidall's perfect reading. He writes like a man who has surely experienced this first hand. I hope that it's not true.

At any rate, it's the search for an experimental treatment that sends Zuckerman back to New York after many years. His visit happens to coincide with the 2004 presidential election, a nightmare that he delves into and that I remember much too vividly. As he reconnects with people and ideas, even toying with the idea of swapping homes for a year with a young couple suffering from post 9/11 trauma, Nathan begins to experience a full emotional life once again, accompanied by all the attendant hope, desire and rage. This fantastic, disturbing book is not for sissies!

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