5 January 2009
Roughly a third of the way into this novella and… and it’s an extended Memento Mori. It opens with the funeral of the main character as Roth surveys the reactions of some of the interested parties. Then we’re fairly quickly into a conventional third person narrative of Joe Soap’s life. (Does Roth tell us his name? I don’t think he does.) The background is usually one or other of the local hospitals – not because he spent most of his life there, but because his (so far) three stays there are what the narrator chooses to focus on: childhood hernia op, adult burst appendix op, middle-aged heart op. The second and third of these were life-threatening and focus the mind wonderfully. Or morbidly.
It’s a conventional life. In fact, it’s more or less cliché New York (or New Jersey) Jewish. Hardworking father, loving mother, education education education. It reminded me of John McGahern’s Memoir: Different setting – New York instead of the west of Ireland – but equally lacking in surprises. I guess this is deliberate on Roth’s part. (Maybe it was for McGahern as well.) This is Everyman and nothing in life is certain except the visit from the Grim R. And what hospital visits really focus the mind on is the too too solid flesh: the physical nature of life is a continuous thread. Shit, even his father, a jeweller, insists that what is essential – quintessential – about diamonds is that they come from the earth and they are perpetual. Like us, then, and not like us.
In this section, the key moment is his father’s death. Roth has given him an old man’s devotion to religious ritual, so the burial is gruelling. After it there’s no doubt about what happens to the body: it’s in the ground and it’s staying there.
I’m finding it thin stuff. John Doe is on his third marriage, has a daughter he loves, an older brother he loves and respects – and I’m not a bit bothered. Maybe it’s an identikit family to go with the rest of the identikit biography. Ask not for whom.
The middle third
I was ready to give up, but now I’m glad I didn’t. We get more on the fragility and conditionality of life, more on the way old age closes us down. He even moves to a kind of retirement community somewhere on the coast he knew as a child. Ho-hum, I was thinking – and I was also thinking what a self-justifying shit he is. (It might be written in the third person, but that’s just a literary dodge. Specifically, Roth dodges the sense of special pleading you get when a first person narrator explains his unattractive behaviour. But he still struck me as a shit.) We get his envy of his older brother, who seems to have been born with a much more reliable body than his own. We get the rueful admission of what his sons (and the rest of his family) think of his adulteries and his second and third marriages. We get someone who seems tiresomely sorry for himself – and then, in flashback, we get almost pornographic descriptions of how he rediscovered sex in his fifties, and how his behaviour was completely out of his control. What’s to like?
And then… although Fred Bloggs becomes no more attractive, we somehow begin to see things slightly differently. For a start, there’s somebody else’s suffering for a change: the cancer-suffering widow he meets is shredded by pain to the extent that we can understand how life seems entirely meaningless to her. Then, after the squalid affair that ended his second marriage, we get a verbatim account of his wife’s description of his behaviour. It seems that at last we’re getting a viewpoint that isn’t self-serving – and her tirade is utterly convincing…. He marries the brainless model he was shagging – and realises what a stupid thing he’s done. Two thirds of the way through the book – and a lot more than two-thirds of the way through his life – he seems to be learning something.
The final third…
…and I’m glad I read it. One of the things I didn’t mention in the middle section was how Joe Soap and his aged fellow citizens talk about whether the only thing left to focus on is memories – because, to be honest, they know they’ll never achieve anything worthwhile now. Not even belief, not even true emotion that isn’t bound up in thoughts of diminishment. To speak personally: this is so – what? – identical to thoughts I’ve been having in connection with my dad that it felt like being inside my own head. Or my dad’s. Two words sum it up for him, I know: nothing matters.
To do him justice, John Doe doesn’t give up. There’s a fantasy of sex, when he speaks to a jogger in her twenties about, y’know, whether she’s ‘game’. She plays along with it, but he never sees her again: evidently she jogs somewhere else now. And he properly recognises the value of what he had in his second marriage (to Phoebe, whom he visits after a stroke) and the importance of the relationship with his brother that he’s allowed to wither. And so on. But one of the key sections of the book is the awful week in which people from his life die off, or in some other way fall by the wayside. As in the middle third, it’s a relief to get outside the man’s own head and catch a glimpse of the book’s concerns from other points of view. His old boss is dead – but he had a good innings, and a good life. That’s one route. An old work colleague is drugged up to the eyeballs with anti-depressants: a different route. Another has a virulent cancer, but doesn’t give up hope of writing his memoirs (until he dies)…. Nothing wrong with that route.
So what does our man do? Well, goes quietly, in fact, during a routine op he’s had before. But by now we’ve seen another good reason for a third person narrative: his thoughts before dying. His mood is strangely upbeat following a morning spent with – guess – the gravedigger at his parents’ cemetery. More of him in a minute, but those dying thoughts? Swimming in the rolling waves as a child, which Roth has used throughout as an image of the vitality of the life that old age takes away. What will remain of us, then, is… nothing much, obviously, but let’s not forget how good it was while it lasted.
As for the gravedigger…. He’s in his late fifties, he’s fit, he’s strong. Ok, he’s not as strong as he was, but in a few pages Roth makes him one of the most fully rounded and animated characters in the book. It’s not merely a kind of wryness that has Roth give a man with such a job his simple faith in the value of a good life. Joe Soap’s Hamlet moment, against the odds, brings a kind of resolution. Death is yet another physical thing to put with all the others. He doesn’t know it, but by the time he dies… he’s ready for it.