Monday, September 14, 2009

roth + roadtrips

On a recent 500-mile round-trip road trip between Meadville, PA, and Skaneateles, NY, I listened to Exit Ghost by Philip Roth. Books on CD are my new discovery and obsession; I'm curious to see if my retention of characters and plot points and conversations is better or worse as a result of listening to the text instead of reading it. (Quiz me in a couple of weeks!) Exit Ghost, which takes its title from a stage command in several Shakespeare plays, is the ninth and final novel that features Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.

While there are several intriguing facets in this book, a few linger:

1) The secondary characters in this novel have life stories that are far more interesting than Zuckerman's. These include: a seductive, adulterous young female writer; a Holocaust survivor with terminal brain cancer; and a late writer by the name of E.I. Lonoff, who supposedly had an incestuous affair with his sister. By comparison, Zuckerman is an anti-social novelist. He's ironic and analytical and sensitive, yes, but aside from reporting or commenting on the lives of these other individuals or inviting them to divulge their stories, Zuckerman mostly just bemoans his ailing prostate, indulges his nostalgia, and laments the things he wants but cannot have.

Which begs the question: How is this Nathan's story? What justifies his position as narrator? Simply because he's the glue between the others--like some sort of slightly more tidy six-degrees-of-separation experiment? At times, I wanted to fast-forward (hooray CD!) the parts about Zuckerman changing his saturated briefs and learn more about the tumor-stricken Amy Bellette or the paranoid Jamie Logan.

2) In a society where Perez Hilton seems to have as much clout as the actors he maligns, I'm curious about the division between how a writer (or actor or other celebrity-type) behaves in his/her "real" life, and how that influences the merit of his/her art. Zuckerman makes this point over and again in Exit Ghost as he attempts to forestall the biography-in-progress of the late E.I. Lonoff. In short, the biographer, a young bullhead named Kleinman, is convinced that Lonoff lived an isolationist existence to prevent the discovery of his incestuous relationship. Kleinman wants to confirm his hypothesis so he can publish a tell-all. Zuckerman, meanwhile, a former friend and disciple of of the late Lonoff, is convinced that such a book would do the writer the ultimate disservice: reduce his reputation to that one irreversible taboo.

How important is the biographical context? And do scandalous tidbits prevent us from appreciating and considering work at face value? How badly do we need to know the details of a writer's life and how they inform his/her stories? (Does the answer lie in how many more nonfiction books sell vs. works of fiction?)

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