The Humbling

Posted on October 18, 2009


Philip Roth’s new novel has only been out a couple weeks now, but I knew I had to read it right away. It was a quick, breezy read—a tiny novella, like Indignation in its almost aggravating brevity—that only clocks in at 140 pages. And those are small pages with absurdly large type.

To get to the point: its small stature unfortunately matches its effect, which is minimal. The novel is entertaining, if you love Roth as I do, and very readable as his books always are. Yet it’s a failure, and his only book out of the ten I’ve read that I would not recommend.

The extremely simple plot involves Simon Axler, a 60-something (like every other protagonist in every other Roth book) theater actor who feels he has lost his stage confidence and can no longer go on acting. He gets involved with a woman 20+ years younger than him (like every other old man’s sexual dalliances in every other Roth book). This is all there is to the story—his lack of stage confidence and his taboo sexual relationship. When you reach the grim, morose ending, you are thoroughly unsatisfied and realize, too, that the surprising twist you expected did not come, that the plot was indeed just as pedestrian as you feared, from start to finish.

First of all, the book seems to have a lot of unrealistic dialogue, which is surprising considering how spot-on Roth usually is in his portrayals of spoken discussions (take the meetings between Zuckerman and Swede Levov in American Pastoral). The earliest example comes when Axler is visited at his home by his agent, who is even older than he. The agent has come to beg Axler to return to acting and take a part being offered him. Axler insists that he really and truly is done performing, but in the process we get a lot of false exposition: “Don’t think that my career’s been cut short. Think of how long I lasted.”

Here the speech could stop, because he’s addressing his agent, who of course knows very, very well just how Axler’s career went. But Roth has his character continue to outline the entire arc of his career, for the reader’s benefit. This is a clunky device, a tactic that high school students learn to avoid in the most basic of creative writing classes. Usually roth does better. See: “When I started out in college I was just fooling around, you know. Acting was a chance to meet girls. Then I took my first theatrical breath. Suddenly I was alive on the stage and breathing like an actor. I started young. I was twenty-two and came to New York for an audition. And I got the part. I began to take classes.” It goes on like this for another page, with Axler recounting every step along the way. It’s forced.

There is more stilted, unreal spoken language about thirty pages later in an exchange between Axler and his hot young thing, Pegeen. “Is this something you really want, Pegeen? Though we’ve enjoyed each other so far, and the novelty has been strong, and the feeling has been strong, and the pleasure has been strong, I wonder if you know what you’re doing.” No real person would speak this formally to someone in an intimate, one-on-one conversation. So many clauses! It feels more like Axler’s words would be found in an analytical essay about their relationship.

Toward the end, when a character describes her sister’s nervous breakdown and mental state on the phone with Axler, she says something so unrealistic that Roth nearly alienates the reader irreparably. It’s not any phonecall that would ever happen in reality. She says, and we are expected to take it as a natural, spontaneous thought: “There’s a great crash going to occur. She won’t be living behind this placid mask for long… I’m frightened of what’s coming next.” First of all, that bit about the “placid mask.” Give me a break. In addition, who actually uses the word ‘frightened’ in speech? Ive never heard it said before. It’ perfectly natural in a bit of literary description, but not in a verbal exchange.

That this phonecall would be poorly written is specially strange since an earlier phonecall between Axler and Pegeen’s father, Asa, is pitch-perfect and has far more real, authentic dialogue.

There are, of course, examples of terrific dialogue. When Pegeen inevitably walks out on Axler, what he yells at her is very real: “So it was an experiment, right down to the end. Another adventure for Pegeen Mike.” Then, when she makes an accusation he counters: “That’s the most ludicrous bullshit I’ve ever heard. And you know it. Go, Pegeen! If that’s your vindication, go!” This indignation (ha!) is all very real and accurate, and the dialogue works.

Overall, the ending, which I imagine is meant to be quite shocking, is merely upsetting, flat, and surprisingly obvious. An early description of the novel, released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a few months ago, mentioned that the plot involves a “counterplot of unusual erotic desire.” That’s a laugh, because the desire is neither ‘unusual’ for a Roth book, nor is it really a ‘counterplot.’ It’s the only plot, and it’s kind of lame.

The ending is also intensely grim; a real downer. What was moral/point of story? I had a similar experience with the ending of the also short novella Indignation—though that book was far, far better until the final reveal. Still, it shows to me that perhaps the apparent choice to move toward quick, tiny novellas that he fires off (Indignation, The Humbling, and the forthcoming Nemesis) might be a poor choice. Roth, perhaps, ought to return to longer, more complex and sprawling masterpieces. This one just didn’t work, but of course, that’s okay. All wonderful authors are allowed to have a flop or two—Ishiguro had Nocturnes, Murakami had After Dark, Updike had Toward the End of Time. Roth is still my guy, my very favorite. But skip this new one.

Posted in: DBR Blog