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Philip Roth's <em>The Humbling</em> Is, At 140 Pages, His Best Book In Years

Roth is 76 now. He's outlived all of his rivals. He's our most prominent novelist. And over 30 books, he's learned how to disturb us -- and keep us reading.
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I read the new Philip Roth novel the other day -- it's just 140 pages, with fewer words than usual per page, so you can knock it off in a few hours -- and I'm still disturbed.

This in an improvement over my reaction when I finished it.

I was shaky. Almost shaking.

I hope you will read The Humbling -- I found it to be Roth's best work in years; sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, he's still the most readable serious writer we've got -- but I have a problem saying much about it.

I didn't see the third and last section ("The Final Act") coming. I didn't want the ending to be what it was. Even afterward, I couldn't accept that this was how the story had to end. And I don't want to spoil it for you by describing it in any way.

I feel the same unease in discussing the second section ("The Transformation"), which also came as a surprise to me. In the interest of having it come as a surprise to you, I will speak no more of it here.

Which leaves me to convince you to read this masterful -- and, as I say, very disturbing -- book by discussing only the 43 pages of the first section ("Into Thin Air").

Well, okay. Simon Axler is one of the great stage actors of his generation. But now he's in his mid-60s, and he's adrift. This is how the book starts:

He'd lost it. 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 happened: he couldn't act. Going onstage became agony. Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. It happened three times in a row. And by the last time nobody was interested, nobody came. He couldn't get over to the audience. His talent was dead.

There's nothing more subjective than "talent." Maybe Axler's just tired. Maybe he just needs a rest.

He retreats to his house in the country, bringing a gloom thick as the poisonous cloud of a crop-duster. His wife flees. Now he's completely alone. And feeling suicidal. So he checks himself into a mental hospital for a month.

After, his harsh assessment is unchanged: "You're either free or you aren't... I'm not free anymore." Worse, he feels that his talent was a fluke, that all artistic spark is random: This life's a fluke from start to finish."

He accepts that. Don't think of his as a career cut short, he says. Think how long it lasted.

Axler may be frozen, but Roth isn't -- he can pack a trilogy into a hundred pages. Things happen to Axler, and Axler makes things happen. He's not dead yet. Which means -- this is a Philip Roth book -- there will be a woman.

Alas, I cannot say more without spoiling the book's pleasure -- because it is pleasant to read a book this tight, this efficiently constructed; it's the exact opposite of Ian McEwan's 200-page shaggy marriage novel, On Chesil Beach. But I can offer some clues.

One is Roth's interest in aging, which is not at all novelistic. He's not looking to create either charmers or complainers; he's seeking reality. This short interview will give you a clue to the way the story plays out in The Humbling:

And here's one more hint. This is a book set in the country. In three sections -- three acts, if you will. It is, someone has suggested, a Chekhovian tragedy. Well, recall what Chekhov said about a gun that appears in the first act....

This is a long way from the summer romance of Goodbye, Columbus. But Philip Roth was 26 when he published that. He's 76 now. He's outlived all of his rivals. He's our most prominent novelist. And over 30 books, he's learned how to disturb us -- and keep us reading. The Humbling is haunting proof.

[Cross-posted from ]