Review

The Humbling

by Philip Roth

For the past several years, Philip Roth’s novels have
become increasingly spare and minimal. No one else writes with such
urgency about growing old or the frailty of human intimacy quite
like him, and none in such short spaces. THE HUMBLING is barely 140
pages, more a long story than a novel, but Roth makes every scene
count. From thoughts of suicide to an affair with a lesbian, to sex
with a green rubber dildo and an emotional breakdown, Roth takes
his readers on a devastating journey through the twilight months of
a man who “lost his magic.”

The man is Simon Axler, a beloved stage and film actor in his
late 60s who has suddenly lost the ability to act. His lines, which
formerly leapt from his mouth like birds, now hang like dead
weights. Driven to despair, he contemplates suicide before checking
into a mental hospital. During this purgatory, we learn more about
Axler’s relationship to acting and briefly meet characters
who act as foils for his depression. The second part of the novel
(the book is organized into three acts) reintroduces Axler to
Pegeen, a lesbian college professor 25 years his junior whose
parents were former colleagues of his. Despite having known Pegeen
from when she was in diapers, and despite her having no prior
interest in men, they embark on an affair fitting of the
chapter’s title: “The Transformation.” Their
bizarre metamorphoses raise the question of possible new beginnings
for both of them, but let’s face it: this is a late-Roth
novel. It’s not spoiling anything to say that things go awry
in the third act. And you thought Nathan Zuckerman (of EXIT GHOST)
or Coleman Silk (of THE HUMAN STAIN) had bad ends.

Roth’s unforgiving minimalism approaches the level of
Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett this time around while tackling the
recurring themes often present in Roth’s later works. Aspects
of EXIT GHOST, EVERYMAN and INDIGNATION abound, but even harsher
than before. THE HUMBLING would feel almost derivative if it
didn’t bring new vigor to these tropes. Axler, in his late
age, is very reminiscent of the aforementioned Zuckerman: the
respected man of the arts brought to his knees by his impending
mortality. But Axler’s ailments are spiritual as well as
physical, and at a younger age than Zuckerman, his life looks about
to fall apart at the seams rather than wither away by aging. His
sexual and emotional relationship with Pegeen in many ways mirrors
Marcus Messner’s entanglement with the equally enigmatic (and
capricious) Olivia. But the stakes here are higher and the sex more
dangerous. Like Roth’s recent works, the dialogue sounds less
like what people would normally say and more like what their
displaced, awkward souls want to say. This technique is at
its strongest in THE HUMBLING.

But the book’s best feature is its careful distance. Roth
denies any attempts to bond with his characters. Their dialogue
repels us, their actions unnerve us, and their stories upset us.
They are more distant from each other than in other recent books.
Human connection --- that so-often-touted trope --- does nothing
for them. They each must bear their burdens alone, and Roth affords
no opportunities to find nobility in struggle. By keeping the
characters and narrative apart from themselves and from us, Roth
amplifies the urgency of their flawed positions and crafts a
beautifully restrained novel.

Yet fans of Roth, especially of his recent work, may be
disappointed this time around. Compared to those more ambitious
works, THE HUMBLING doesn’t take much on. Most missed is
Roth’s incomparable ability to tie his characters in to an
historical American moment (and since he’s been writing a
book a year, they’re fairly current in that regard). THE
HUMBLING is entirely character-driven; the outside world never
really impinges on the stage. And even the spare but curiously
effective INDIGNATION (a bit over 200 pages) has a greater scope
than this slim work.

For the Roth aficionado (myself included), Axler may feel too
much like his other characters. His physical, spiritual and sexual
predicaments are far too reminiscent of EXIT GHOST and EVERYMAN for
any comparisons to be ignored and, more importantly, for us to
wonder why Roth chose to write such a similar book again.
Relative to those works, THE HUMBLING just doesn’t stack up.
Its dialogue is too bizarre, its exposition weighty and
overwrought. But if able to resist the temptation of comparison,
the reader most likely won’t be disappointed. Roth has
demonstrated his mastery of the short-form novel once again, and
while THE HUMBLING is not his best effort, it is worthy of
attention.

Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 22, 2011

The Humbling
by Philip Roth

  • Publication Date: October 5, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307472582
  • ISBN-13: 9780307472588