26 October, 2009Issue 10.2FictionLiterature

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The ‘(H)am’ and the ‘Am Not’

Amy Waite

The HumblingPhillip Roth
The Humbling
Jonathan Cape, 2009
160 Pages
ISBN 978-0224087933

The premise of Philip Roth’s novel, so we discover in its opening pages, is the stuff of “universal nightmare”.

Once ranked amongst the best classical actors in America, Simon Axler, anti-hero of The Humbling, finds himself suddenly and inexplicably stripped of his talent. He is left exposed under the cruel glare of theatre lights and spectators, unable to inhabit the role of Shakespeare’s Macbeth without appearing ludicrous, haunted by the all-too prophetic negation of Prospero’s famous words: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air, into thin air”. Where does the actor go, who does he become, when he hasn’t a role to perform? Axler’s answer: nowhere and no-one—”I can’t act onstage and I can’t find a plot for myself to live offstage”. Instead, he slowly begins to disappear.

The latest of Roth’s recent explorations into human vulnerability, desire, and mortality, The Humbling discloses Axler’s fate—and man’s struggle against existential vacuity—with deft, agonizing clarity. Roth takes an uncommon approach to this modern theme, shrewdly disinterring the creative potential within even the darkest, most destructive of negations.

This excavation unfolds through the tension between Roth’s taut, muscular, urgent prose and his convoluted syntax. As Axler’s thoughts turn to suicide, he realises that even his depression feels like a bad case of ham-acting. Reality thins and substance—particularly the substance of self—is replaced by meaningless metatheatrics; Axler is “a man who wanted to live playing a man who wanted to die.” At such instances of self-cancellation, Roth’s prose disappears into its own expression. Negative, double negative, and even triple negative constructions emerge, removing matter from both Axler’s world and from the text itself. Consider the lines: “…nothing made him happier than making her look like she’d never looked before. And in time nothing seemed to make her happier.” The negation reduces and thins the emotion even as it expresses it.

This is not, however, to say that Roth’s novel is in any way lightweight. On the contrary, this “thinning” process works to dramatise the central crisis of modern subjectivity. In a 1984 interview with Hermione Lee, Roth explained: “all my heroes are in a state of vivid transformation or radical displacement. They are caught in the art, the act, of discovering ‘I am not what I am—I am, if anything, what I am not’”. Roth’s newest protagonist is particularly sensitive to the differences between the “am” and the “am not”. Having once made his living pretending to be the “am not”, Axler can neither return to the “am” nor reclaim the theatrical security—the comforting illusion—of the “am not”.

This crisis explains the solace Axler finds in Pegeen, the middle-aged lesbian with whom he conducts a controversial affair. It also explains why such solace is ultimately temporary and self-destructive. Pegeen functions as the most significant “double negative” of the work. In Axler’s attempts to transform a her into that which she is not—a straight woman with a keen sense of style—she becomes a sort of biological and sociological nought. Each new piece of clothing, feminine accessory, and cosmetic product that Axler provides works to emaciate, rather than embellish his lover’s existence. Pegeen, in turn, compounds this negation by channelling her repressed homosexual fantasies and desires into the imaginary erotic figure Lara, who “accompanies” Pegeen and Axler in all their sexual encounters: “everyone felt emboldened by Lara because there was no Lara there and so no consequences”, Axler explains. In his brief period of erotic and existential rejuvenation, then, the out-of-work actor is still a performer making-believe, a “nobody doing (in all senses of the word) nothing.”

These metatheatrics become more complex in the context of Roth’s interviews and criticism. Drawing frequent parallels between writing and acting, Roth insists that writing is a form of impersonation, for the “fundamental novelistic gift” is to “pass oneself off as what one is not.” The Humbling is a thus a book by a writer who impersonates for a living, impersonating an actor who also impersonates for a living, who has reached a point in his life where impersonation is both impossible and the only possible thing. Roth relishes the irony. Indeed, his penchant for this particular form of irony helps to explain his decision to abandon the first-person voice—so effective in Portnoy’s Complaint and My Life as a Man— for the comparative distance of the third-person in The Humbling. Navigating from afar, Roth uses the third-person both to delineate negation—at turns inspiring laughter, horror, blind fear—and to resist Axler’s all-consuming psychological black hole.

And yet, for all its remoteness, The Humbling’s greatest achievement is its ability to finally pull itself, its reader, its author, and perhaps—though Roth would no doubt disagree here—fiction back from the edge of annihilation. The breach between the “am” and the “am not” can certainly evacuate and destroy. But if approached judiciously, with awareness, humility, and a modicum of humour, this gap can also function as an important and liberating imaginative source, both for the self and for art.

At the end of their interview, Hermione Lee asked Roth to describe himself. His reply was brief and characteristically matter-of-fact: “I am like somebody who is trying vividly to transform himself out of himself and into his vividly transforming heroes. I am very much like somebody who spends all day writing.” This impression lingers at the close of The Humbling. Unlike his (anti)hero, Roth’s powers of transformation and impersonation are still at their height. The only thing we can be sure of, to utilise a Rothian triple negative, is that however much he might try to convince us otherwise, this novelist is never a “nobody doing nothing.”

Amy Waite is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford.