The Humbling

roth the humblingThe Short Version: Simon Axler, a famous and aging actor, has lost his gift. Unable to perform anymore, he begins to question his own existence – until Pegeen, the daughter of an old friend, comes into the picture. She might be a lesbian, but they become lovers. Does this signal a turnaround for Axler or is it just a brief pause before the end?

The Review: …huh.

You know, I think I’ve given Philip Roth enough chances now. I read The Ghost Writer in college and The Plot Against America with my BookClub a while back… and I’m done. I’m not particularly against Mr. Roth’s work – but I just don’t see the need to read any more of it, even the works that are supposedly his great triumphs like American Pastoral. It’s not so much that this (admittedly maligned) later work was the straw that broke the camel’s back but rather that it just reinforced the things I’d felt previously.

John Crace, the guy who does “The Digested Read” over at The Guardian, pretty much nails it with his satirised 5 minute parody – because I think he’s right. There’s something about this that feels a little bit too much like Roth writing about a weird version of himself. Caryl Churchill, when she was just starting out, wrote a play called Seagulls that seems a clear allegory for the question of “what happens if the magic stops?”, the magic being the ability to write, and Roth is using theater and performance where Churchill used telekinesis to address that very question: what happens if I can’t do this thing that I’ve always done?  What happens to the person when their very life – after all this time, after decades – is stopped but they keep on living?  Except where Churchill has interesting things to say, Roth just comes up with the most ridiculous shit.

Because, I’m sorry, it’s ridiculous.  As Crace’s bit details, it’s pretty nutty to believe that a 40-year-old lesbian would suddenly decide to sleep with a septuagenarian dude.  I’m all for the sliding and fluid nature of sexuality, but there’s nothing about the way that Roth presents this that makes it seem remotely plausible.  And the writing is icky, bordering on nonsensical.  If you happen to have a copy nearby or feel like pulling it off the shelf at a bookstore sometime, open to any random page and read a bit.  If I didn’t “know” that Philip Roth is one of the most respected writers of the age, I’d think this was dreck.

And this is all a pretty big disappointment, because conceptually this is interesting territory.  What is it like to lose your talent?  It’s more than writer’s block, it’s more than going up on a line – it’s a question I fear the answer to, as a creative person.  Is life worth living if you can’t create something?  But Roth doesn’t really answer this question: he gets his kicks with weird sexual machinations (including one of the more awkward threesomes in the history of awkward threesomes) and then Axler (SPOILER but really I don’t care) kills himself after Pegeen leaves him. And then the book is done and you say “…huh.” and go about your business.  It helps, sure, that the book is really a novella – but only because it won’t take you more than an hour or two to really get through it.

Rating: 2 out of 5. The potentially very interesting psychological questions that underlie the action of this novel are left almost completely unaddressed – and the writing is not terribly interesting.  I’ve read early and late Roth now and I find that I really just… it’s not that I dislike him so much as I feel like he’s just, well, not for me.  I know that this book isn’t the book to recommend him as an author (my god, I struggle to even really call it a book, as it’s more like a half-baked idea that he doodled around on for a while) – but I’ve seen enough.  Bye bye, Mr. Roth.

Notes on the Film:  A few notes, however, on the film adaptation starring Al Pacino.
I was lucky enough to catch a screening of the film at The New Yorker Festival this year and it was actually a delight.  Pacino turns in one of the best performances he has given in a very long time (understated and comic in the best ways), it’s beautifully shot, and the plot is adapted… not very loosely, but far improved upon compared to the novel. For one thing, Axler’s mental state is pretty loosey goosey – but for another, Greta Gerwig as Pegeen makes so much more sense.  For whatever fucked up reason, it just seems a little more realistic that this wild late twentysomething might take up with this guy who she had a crush on as a child.  Perhaps it’s just presented more realistically, I don’t know.  But the further changes that director Barry Levinson & Pacino bring to the tale elevate it into a sort of strange black comedy.  There are great performances across the board, they shot it in like a month for $2mil, and it doesn’t strive to be anything more than a strange goofy little story.  One of the rare times that the adaptation far outshines the source material.

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