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Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

By Jack | Books | August 19, 2009 |

By Jack | Books | August 19, 2009 |

Sometimes I read a book and regardless of whether it’s any good or not, or I liked it or not, there is an image that stays with me. Sometimes for months. When the narrator describes his young son playing the in the sprinklers in Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, the tooth pulling scene delivered so matter-of-factly in Listening for Small Sounds, and Temple Drake’s skin inching up her frame in Sanctuary come to mind. And for me, in this novel, I’m just going to want Jamie to have never spoken at all. If only. There is something about her voice that is so jarringly false — to the point of distraction — that for this reader it went a long way towards ruining a perfectly enjoyable read.

Exit Ghost is Nathan Zuckerman’s swan song of sorts. A virtual recluse for the last 10 years, he returns to New York city to have a procedure done that is meant to control his post-prostate cancer incontinence — it’s a return likened to Rip Van Winkle (I kid you not — this is Roth right?) In the city, Nathan, on a whim, answers an ad for a house trade for a year. Two young authors, one of whom is rattled in post 9/11 New York city, are looking to escape for a year. Nathan, feeling invigorated and hopeful, answers the ad and meets the two young authors. Ridiculous, puppy-dog loyal David, and his ever-so-lovely, 30 year-old, more talented (although one publication 5 years prior is the only evidence of this) wife, Jamie.

Nathan becomes involved — more so imaginatively than really — with this couple, the “friend” of theirs who hopes to write a biography on a now-deceased friend of his, and a couple of one-time friends in the city. An author himself, Nathan imaginatively reconstructs many of his exchanges in NY in an effort to work on (most probably) his final novel. As the novel progresses, we learn that Nathan’s facilities, mental as well as physical, are less and less reliable. With the introduction of the young seductress, Jamie, Nathan laments the loss of his youth anew.

There are moments where the story fires on all cylinders. There is a secret, a new look at the past, a possible untapped potential — elements that propel the story convincingly. Nathan is sympathetic and compelling. His interactions, while occasionally somewhat polemic, are nonetheless entertaining. At moments the dialogue is so good you feel like you’re in the middle of the conversation. This is especially true with Nathan and Amy, or Nathan and Kliman. But then there is Jamie.

I don’t know if the author fell in love with the character himself or what, but nothing about her rang true for this reader after the first introduction. She is so idealized that even the moments that are suppose to flush her out as a “regular” girl on some level fail miserably. By the middle of the novel, it felt as though there was a cardboard poster with “insert perfect fantasy woman here” filling the space from which we should have been able to hear Jamie’s voice. It’s reasonable that Zuckerman fell so in love with her, was blinded by need, want, desperation etc. and in his memory of her we understand that. However, in the real time exchanges, his POV can’t account for “That’s how we got so devoted so quickly - they provided us with delightful tales of horror and mirth” or “I told you: he is adventurous. He’s drawn to daring ventures. What’s wrong with that?” All I can think is, who talks like this. Really. Or rather, what tolerable person talks like this, let alone one who would inspire the cloying adoration of a husband, an ex and an old man who figured himself well past the point of being interested in much of anything at all?

Ultimately, the story kind of peters out at the end. I felt like there was more build up than delivery, but at the same time I did really enjoy parts of the novel. That must be what the problem is for me, I so enjoyed the parts I enjoyed that it made all of the Jamie business so damned disappointing. I actually groaned aloud driving home from the mountains when a particularly infuriating Jamie scene followed a phenomenally strong one with Amy. I wanted to punch her out, just so she’d shut the fuck up.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Jack’s reviews, check out his blog, Reads for Fun.

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