The novel is somewhat about facing death, it's about stuff we fear and stuff we desire, but it is largely concerned about writing about these things. It's about the purpose of writing, why people, no, why great writers write (and why the not so great shouldn't write), what value their writng has for mankind. There is also a huge concern that the rest of us, the ones who read,often don't get it, and those who don't read at all are just as much to be pitied, in Jamaica we hiss our teeth at such condescension and say "what a piece o fassness". The large issues are out there to see, as plainly as I just outlined them, but the nuances are a little finer and a little harder to put one's fingers on. For instance, do writers write about themselves? To what extent? For example, did Nathaniel Hawthorne write about his own guilt? Well, I might as well ask, does Philip Roth write about his own erotic thoughts in his old age? Perhaps I ask because I don't get it?
So on to what I really enjoyed about this novel. In the first place the narrator is Nathan Zuckerman. I met and fell in love with Zuckerman from "The Human Stain" and now I am sworn to reading all in the Zuckerman books, in whichever order I get them. Zuckerman is an old recluse whose cancer is in remission (or has been removed or whatever) and who is at the mercy of incontinence and impotence. From his New England hideaway he authors several best sellers and maintains his very private existence inspite of being world renowned. I find the construct very appealing- Roth is writing the novel, but he does it in such a way that Zuckerman comes alive and seems to be the real writer. I also like Zuckerman's unrelenting frankness about his own physical, psychological and emotional condition. To me Zuckerman is more real than Roth.
"Exit Ghost" is apparently the last of the Zuckerman books, as is suggested by the title; "Ghost" being Zuckerman the ghost writer, and Zuckerman's mental faculties being as deteriorated as it is in this novel. He can't remember what restuarant he told Amy to meet him at. He can't remember what he did or did not say to Kliman. He gets bouts of confusion. Also, since "The Ghost Writer is the first of the Zuckerman books, it stands to reason that "Exit Ghost" most be the last.
But did you notice my triplet? Zuckerman, I mean Roth, brought the technique to my attention. I've seen it many times before and have probably used the technique myself, but not consciously. He mentions Joseph Conrad's copious use of triplets and he uses them generously himself. Look at this:
Who among your contemporaries will be the last to die? Who among your contemporaries is least likely to die? Who among your contemporaries will not only elude death, but will write with wit, precision, and modesty of his amused bafflement at successfully pulling off eternal life?
Wit, precision and modesty- look, a triplet of nouns within a triplet of questions.
Something else he does in this novel held me reading to the end. See the title Exit Ghost? Well within the novel Zuckerman writes a play in which he enacts his fantasy about the alluring Jamie. Zuckerman makes his exit from the play within the novel, from the novel itself, from novel writing, and probably from life. Sophistication itself.
On the flap of the cover it says that Roth won the Pullitzer Prize in 1997 for American Pastoral (not one of the Zuckerman books) and that just about every other year after that he's one prestigious award or other. I admire his craft and had a good laugh once in the novel- like I did while I read Human Stain, but I will read only his novels between some comics, children's books and mysteries.