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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Life and death without the hocus-pocus

By Norman Lebrecht / April 25, 2006

Philip Roth: Everyman Jonathan Cape, £12.99

The late flowering of Philip Roth – six novels in the past decade, four of them towering masterpieces – has hit a hiatus, a marble slab, with this slim, unsmiling volume of a death foretold. Roth buries his protagonist in the opening, two-page-long paragraph. There is nowhere further to go, no escaping the end of all flesh.

His hero has no name. He is Everyman, a 21st century transposition of the medieval English allegory, his life related in a crafted combination of marital breakdowns and medical history.

Everyman, retired creative director of a successful advertising agency, removes himself from Manhattan after the twin towers fall to the security of a three-room geriatric condo on the New Jersey coast, not far from where he grew up. Loneliness and fear set in. His daughter phones him each morning before she sets out to work, but she is too hassled to visit. Around him, the neighbours are immersed in pictures of grandchildren and the ceaseless struggle with diseases that are steadily killing them. Everyman teaches an art class to make new friends. One by one, he attends their funerals.

Old colleagues, their phone numbers half-forgotten, stare up at him from the obituary pages. Once a year he goes to the hospital for tests and is told that he needs another surgical procedure to correct arterial blockages and, quite possibly, the shortcomings of past operations. Each time, the doctors assure him that he is going to be fine, their faith in progress and in their own shining skills unsullied by the small percentage of failures, or any recognition that death must ultimately win. The one woman who cared for him in crisis, albeit for pay, is uncontactable. Everyman faces his fate alone.

Roth excels in exploring relational crevices, the cracks that can break a love apart or linger patiently beneath its floorboards, like dry rot. He knows the urges of men and the limits of women's tolerance. For a vocational storyteller who has never held a job, he has a better grasp of the life-work balance than John Updike, Ian McEwan or any other living novelist. He understands the moral importance of work, no matter how meaningless, to mortal self-esteem. What Roth is not so good at is death. 'Old age isn't a battle,' grunts his self-consumed narrator, 'old age is a massacre.' It's a nice adage, if partly untrue.

Everyman rejects the afterlife. 'No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.' The rejection, however, is too angry to be atheistic. Roth, through his narrator, rages at God for giving us so short and empty a life. His hatred of the eternal is almost mistakable for love.

On the drive to his last bout with the surgeons, he stops at the dilapidated Jewish cemetery where his parents are buried and engages a black gravedigger in a conversation about the details of his digging and his dedication to the job. The intense pride that this simple man takes in a task honourably performed counterpoints the vapidity of Everyman's work, his vain efforts to promote consumer products through his art and fertile mind. The vanity of vanities is revealed. There is no point to life, after all.

At first reading, this sombre novella leaves no more than a bitter taste and a desire to re-read certain pages for their word-perfection. On second reading, more allegories are revealed, but not incontestably. Life, you keep feeling, need not be as hopeless as this. Love can be preserved with a little care and attention. And alone as we are at the moment of death, there is something that endures of every life, no matter how meaningless it may seem at times to the one who lived it. Roth fails in the face of death by refusing to countenance the dignity of human life, as distinct from the dignity of work and art. Everyman leaves him with nowhere to go.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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