Roth’s ‘Humbling’ Is Erudite, If Apathetic
“Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strenth I have’s mine own, / Which is most faint…” Prospero opens his epilogue to “The Tempest” with strange and wistful words: his spells are breaking even as he speaks; his return to the mortal world—and to a death that, though outside the comedy’s arc, feels eerily close—is imminent. But Shakespeare’s final play is too full, quakes with too much wonder and life to fall beneath the long shadow of its author’s final bow. The end, be it of magic, of art, or of life, comes only as Prospero himself, satisfied, willingly relinquishes.
But what if Prospero is a deceiver? A usurper? A false sovereign, like Macbeth? Philip Roth’s latest novel, “The Humbling,” suggests the synthesis of these two roles in the book’s protagonist: the aging, once-great stage actor Simon Axler. “He’d lost his magic. The impulse was spent. He’d never failed in the theater, everything he had done had been strong and successful, and then the terrible thing had happened: he couldn’t act,” it begins. The novel’s central crisis, Axler’s loss of the ability to act, becomes a symbol—thin though it may seem—for a world coming apart at its very fabric. “The Humbling,” Roth’s thirtieth book and his fourth novel in as many years, is a brief and anguished meditation on the social, physical, and mental decay of an individual whose identity is ripped out from beneath him. Axler’s life, constituted by ability to perform on and off the stage, proffers itself as transient. His only recourse is to cling to those who still have the will to perform, but it’s a temporary solution. Like Prospero, he is the magician whose powers have left him. Like Macbeth, those powers were never his to begin with.
These days, Roth is about as prolific as he is grim. His most recent novels have all dealt in almost expository detail with the subject of death and its inextricability from the spectrum of human experience. “The Humbling,” with its three-act structure and its otherwise bare narrative that alternates predominantly between dialogue with Axler and his inner-monologue, could essentially serve as an allegory for Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The entirety of the novel, from Axler’s time in a mental institution following his breakdown, to his affair with a 20-years-junior lesbian family friend named Pegeen Mike (after a character in Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World”), and his final projection fantasy and eventual ‘humbling’ at Pegeen’s hands, is essentially in deference to that central question. It’s a cruel (if not particularly funny) joke that Axler’s breakdown ensued after a failed Prospero/Macbeth double bill. It’s simply inevitable, then, that when Axler finally answers Hamlet’s question for himself—his confidence, his sense of spontaneity as an actor finally restored—it comes in the form of an improvisatory gesture.
But even that gesture, a suicide tailored in the fashion of Chekov’s “The Seagull,” with a note bearing that play’s final lines, is inherently a performance; “It was in an Actors Studio Broadway production of ‘The Seagull,’ and it marked his first big New York success, making him the most promising young actor of the season, full of certainty and a sense of singularity, and leading to every unforeseeable contingency.” For Axler, this consummate performance, this total surrender of the self in the acknowledgement of the world’s pervasive spectacle, is an act of transcendence. Within the novel, however, it reads more simply; as desperate, as derivative, as meaningless. This is the book Roth has delivered: the rules don’t just prevent you from winning; they prevent you from even playing.
Even the transgressive sexual dynamic that takes hold of the final chapter is hemmed in by the novel’s overtly intellectualized conceit. Pegeen’s reversion from lesbianism, rather than providing the sufficiently developed emotional component that would complicate the novel in an engaging way, merely serves to mix and match psychoanalytic tropes through progressively convoluted and prop-oriented sexual encounters. She becomes a symbol for Axler’s diminished potency, literally wearing a symbol of phallic power during their lovemaking, and his realization of that fact does little more than render it explicit; “They drove home with Pegeen’s hand down his pants. ‘The smell,’ she said, ‘it’s on us,’ while Axler though, I miscalculated—I didn’t think it through. He was the god Pan no longer. Far from it.”
“The Humbling” comes shortly on the heels of last year’s “Indignation,” a similarly clipped, brutal character study, this time of a younger Rothian hero, Marcus Mesner: the already- (or almost-) deceased narrator who must recount and scrutinize the events that lead to his expulsion from Winesburg College and a death sentence at the front lines of the Korean War. Like in “The Humbling,” the thematic and narrative concerns of that book seemed more important to Roth than the construction of an illuminating or sympathetic relationship with the character. The ambiguity that permeates “The Humbing”—of age, of gender, of morality—and the subtlety and variety with which it’s applied, makes it clear that Roth is still capable of telling a story that engages the intellect. A particularly graphic sex scene between Axler, Pegeen and a woman the couple picks up takes on the metaphorical power of Greek drama or Freudian apocrypha; “There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though… Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not supposed to be.”
But at 140 pages, Roth never gives “The Humbling” any opportunity to be more than an exercise in writing that can be ‘read’ in those various ways. Roth seems to have given no consideration to an emotional center to his novel, and purposefully so. And while this provides for a fascinating project—doubtless a project only made possible by a genius like Roth’s—this fascination never translates to enjoyment. Nor does the admiration one may hold for Roth’s vaunted corpus ever translate to a redemptive case for yet another joyless, featherweight book from one of America’s greatest novelist. In 2004, the author, now 76, selected a biographer, in a gesture that suggests, like Gabriel García Márquez, that Roth is aware of his own mortality on the horizon. Though he already has another novel scheduled for publication next year, Roth’s host of references to Shakespeare almost insist on comparison to the Bard at the end of his career. Roth seems either unaware or obstinate in the face of the fact that Shakespeare only had one farewell, and that it was unforgettable. “The Humbling” is anything but.
—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at email@example.com.