The headline of the Roth book review in the International Herald Tribune was: "toward the exit, but not there yet."
It's not a bad summary of the latest Philip Roth which tells the story of Zuckermann who, after eleven years as recluse in the Berkshires, after prostate cancer and a resulting permanent state of incontinence and impotence, takes a journey back to Manhattan for minor surgery to try to improve his state only to find that, once more, he is trapped; by once more falling passionately and hopelessly in love with a relatively banal young married woman of great beauty with plenty of money to whom he had already been attracted many, many years go. This second encounter takes place on the eve of the latest Bush election while Jamie suffers her candidate’s defeat, Zuckerman is seduced – in pure phantasy, by a love affair with her and a return to his own youth and virility.
Parallel with is own saga, is the story of Nathan's once-upon-a-time mentor and hero, long dead, the great writer E.I. Lonoff whose ghost haunts Zuckerman and excites a young and ambitious would-be biographer who is hoping to make his own fame by digging up enough witnesses to attest to an incestuous relationship between the author and that man’s half sister.
The first Zuckerman novel, written in 1979, The Ghost Writer, was the portait of the young artist as Jew and as American. Now Zuckerman is trying to save the dead artist's integrity as a man of creative imagination and not as subject for potential money making by an unscrupulous young would-be biographer.
I am making it simpler than it is. There are various plots and various styles. Some sections reads like theatre. There is a he and a she part. Some is a long analysis of Lonoff's personality written by the woman who came to live with him when his wife left him. Much is the agony of Zuckerman's physical state, the misery of his incontinence, the horror of his impotence, the loss of his virility. His slow dying.
The book is not easy. Both Roth and Zuckerman are troubled about literature and its holiness. Does a critic have the right to confuse the hero of the book with the author? Or is the author free to create a new being and the critic must allow that freedom to the writer without interpretation relating the work to the writer? Roth never has easy answers.