Maybe the reason critics seem so uncertain about Philip Roth‘s new novel, The Humbling, is that it’s about uncertainty. Its hero is an aging actor, Simon Axler, who discovers that he has lost his ability to act. Actually, the first sentence says that what he’s lost is his “magic,” signaling that the novel will be about a search for a whole host of things that he’s trying to recover. Perhaps he’s lost his will to live, so he briefly checks himself into a psychiatric institution; perhaps he’s lost his capacity to love, so he pursues an affair with the 40-year-old daughter of two of his old friends in the theater.
It’s not giving away too much of the story to say that those two efforts don’t resolve Axler’s anxieties. The question for Roth is how to describe Axler’s inability to affect that resolution—how to evoke the ever-shifting instincts in Axler’s head without making him a merely wishy-washy or pitiful character. Some of this is taken care of by the plot; there’s sex and there’s violence, and both relate to Axler’s conflictedness. But Roth also tries to stress it by routinely describing relationships as transactional, having Axler regularly assess where he stands in an emotional ledger. As his (relatively) young lover Pegeen puts it: “It’s pursuing what you want. And not pursuing what you no longer want.” Pegeen herself is coming off a bad relationship with a woman who’s decided to have a sex change, and Roth wryly describes the shifts they’ve made: “If Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female.”
For a while, Axler figures he’s in the black, reveling in what he’s taken when he thinks about Pegeen’s father’s disapproval: “[M]y fame stole away his only daughter, the fame that Asa himself could never garner,” Roth writes, in a rhyme that echoes Axler’s kid-like giddiness. Later, though, as it becomes clear that he may have made a mistake, he thinks to himself, “I miscalculated—I didn’t think it through.” From there it’s a short trip through the see-sawing emotions that propel The Humbling to its end.
That ending is predictable—you know that old line about what needs to happen in the theater if a gun is introduced, and The Humbling involves the theater and a gun. And anybody who’s read Roth’s recent run of brief novels won’t be surprised to hear that this one is about aging and death as well. But his strategy this time around is different than it was in, say, 2006’s Everyman, which emphasized the grim finality of dying. “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre,” he wrote in that book, which also contains one of Roth’s most brutal bits of dialogue, spoken by a gravedigger: “This is nice diggin’. No rocks. Straight in.” In Everyman, Roth suggests, we’re all speedily tunneling toward our inevitable end, and there’s little point in fighting against it. The Humbling is about the attempt to fight back, about desperately making bargains in the hopes of avoiding that end. But the only reward for that, Roth suggests, is humiliation.