Philip Roth is one of the most decorated American writers of our time. Winner of numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Gold Medal in Fiction, he is the only living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America.
But no one’s perfect. Roth’s 30th book is a dud, an exception to his mostly great work.
“The Humbling” centers on Simon Axler, one of the leading American stage actors of his generation, who suddenly finds himself a failure, unable to act. He sees himself as a loathsome man who is nothing more than the inventory of his defects.
His wife leaves him, and he finds himself thinking every day of killing himself with a shotgun in the attic. Finally he calls his doctor and asks him to check him into a psychiatric hospital. He stays there 26 days. In a group therapy session, he tells the other patients, Suicide is the role you write for yourself. He tells his doctor that he’s lost his magic as an actor for no good reason. You lose, you gain, it’s all caprice, he says.
He goes back to his house in the country, but he’s no better. His agent mentions a part a director wants him to play in “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” but he refuses. He continues to contemplate suicide.
In Part Two, Simon, age 65, meets Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the daughter of friends of his, now 40 and a lesbian since she was 23. She visits him, and soon — incredibly, but not unusual in Roth’s male fantasy — they’re having sex. A teacher at a nearby college, she moves in on weekends, and Simon sets about transforming her. He buys her expensive clothes in New York City, and she has her hair done.
Louise, a dean at the college and Pegeen’s jilted lover, tells Pegeen’s parents about the affair with Simon. Each parent comes in turn to try to persuade Pegeen to end this unrealistic relationship.
Even if we accept the relationship as realistic, Roth paints Pegeen as a stereotype of a lesbian (or bisexual) with nothing but sex on her mind.
Finally, in Part Three, Pegeen ends the affair and leaves. Simon returns to thoughts of suicide.
Despite its many references to acting and its mentions of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Greek mythology, this book is hard to take seriously.
It feels like a lazy effort by a great writer. Even the writing is weak.
Then there’s one bad editing error involving Simon’s shotgun (another reference to Chekhov). When Louise intrudes on his property, he gets his gun (earlier he describes it as a Remington 870 pump action shotgun), sneaks up behind her and aims the rifle at her.
By the end of this tragedy, we’ve ceased caring for its self-absorbed protagonist.
Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.