Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Fiction as Faith: Philip Roth's Testament in Exit Ghost1

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Fiction as Faith: Philip Roth's Testament in Exit Ghost1

Article excerpt

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost (2007) provides a fitting coda to the saga of the novelist's famed alter-ego and memorable writer-protagonist Nathan Zuckerman, whose novelistic obsessions, cunning, manic discipline, and deeply cherished articles of faith are the stuff of literary legend. While it mostly drew mixed reviews,2 critics who praised the novel singled out Roth's meditations on the deep sources of creativity underlying the art of fiction.3 In the Roth canon, Exit Ghost is likely to be regarded as an important text for several reasons, despite its failure to qualify as a work of the first rank. These include Roth's repeated claims in various interviews4 that Zuckerman is finally dead; the nuanced and sophisticated intertextual links the novel establishes with The Ghost Writer (1979), a Roth novel that powerfully dramatizes the young idealist Zuckerman's tutelage under the classic Jewish American novelist Emanuel Isidore Lonoff, which helps in illuminating the trajectory of the embattled, though successful writing career Zuckerman achieved; and, importantly, the novel's memorable reprising of the familiar concerns of the American Trilogy-American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1999) and The Human Stain (2000)-including meditations on old age, impending mortal- ity, and loss of physical and mental powers.

In the twilight of his life and battling the aftermath of prostate cancer in impotence and incontinence, Zuckerman encounters during his visit to New York City for a medical check-up the aggressive Richard Kliman, a twenty-eight year old cultural journalist, intent on authoring a biography on Lonoff that would expose his alleged incest with his older half-sister Frieda. Strangely resembling Lonoff, his literary idol, in many ways, Zuckerman in the novel's present seeks to prevent Kliman from publishing his biography on the deceased writer. Protesting the persecution of creative writers at the hands of literal-minded biographers, Zuckerman, now rendered ghost-like thanks to old age, rallies to defend Lonoff, an enterprise that doubles up as a defense of the literary vocation. In taking issue with Kliman, Zuckerman seeks to prove how the biographical impulse unmediated by ethical concerns can desacralize fictional truths mediated through imagination. In this essay I will examine Zuckerman's spirited defense of the "fiction-making impulse" (Wood 98) and his quarrels with the genre of contemporary biography5 vis-à-vis the larger debates on the vexed relationship between fictional representation and reality.

Anchored in Zuckerman's compulsive self-reflection, Exit Ghost provides a cogent account of the vicissitudes that led him to relocate to the mountain- ous Berkshires in 1993 and also those that led him to reenter in 2004 the life he had left behind in New York City, ironically in the election week that sees George W. Bush securing a second term as president. In 1993 when the prospect of Islamic terrorism overtaking New York City was unimaginable, Zuckerman, fearing the wrath of the Christian fundamentalists who were offended by his transgressive, no-holds barred fiction, had to flee the city. With the FBI unable to ensure his personal safety, Zuckerman preferred to relocate to the Berkshires, perhaps because its locale became hallowed in his memory thanks to his meeting with E. I. Lonoff in 1956. As a twenty-three year old aspiring writer, Zuckerman, searching for a surrogate father, sought the tutelage of Lonoff, the lodestar of Jewish American literature then. Incur- ring the wrath of his father and the community elders, not only does he find Lonoff 's acceptance reassuring but also imaginatively dares to impose on the former's young mistress Amy Bellette, a Holocaust survivor, the biography of Anne Frank, the closest thing there is to a Jewish saint. Further, Zuckerman imagines marrying Amy-Anne to help him win back the acceptance of his estranged Jewish community. This meeting with Lonoff and his mistress, the subject of The Ghost Writer, is a defining moment in the life of Zuckerman, who in the present novel is a successful and venerated writer. …

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