Exit Ghost by Philip Roth: 17 thoughts

{ Tuesday, February 12, 2008 }

I've just finished reading Exit Ghost by Philip Roth and Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. More on K&C next week. Here we go:

  1. The fragility of age in Water for Elephants was of a souvenir champagne glass that might break. In Exit Ghost it is of a bone that is just about to break. You can hear it.

  2. Nathan Zuckerman pays a lot of attention to what his fetish-woman Jamie is wearing. He comments on it every time. As he does the clothes of Amy Bellette. Although he talks and listens to the person, he considers the shape of her shell.

  3. But when Mr. Zuckerman transposes real Jamie into Imaginary Jamie in order to safely play with his fetish, he does it in a drama, where she is incorporeal.

  4. One thing so right (and this has always bugged me about Smilla's Sense of Snow): When Imaginary Jamie assesses her own sexuality, she focuses on her breasts. Only the imagined alpha male, Imaginary Richard Kliman, zooms in on the genitalia.

  5. Wow, Zuckerman/Roth really hates this Richard Kliman character. Roth has Kliman describing a choir of black women and saying he could for the first time understand the terror as the master went out to the fields to have his fun. Wow! I mean, Wowee! The elastic stretch of it! The suggestion that the twisted, self-delusional racism and misogyny might go even further! To put that in the mouth of a character, you'd have to really hate him!

  6. Do I want to read Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad now that Nathan Zuckerman makes them sound so interesting? Well, why not; I'm already reading The Plumed Serpent and the side roads don't get much dustier than that.

  7. Mr. Zuckerman makes these books sound like arcane knowledge, yet something that every student of literature has certainly read. Can you have it both ways? Among the impossibilities of keeping up with the culture, he doesn't mention the impossibility of reading or having read everything one had ought.

  8. Making all your important characters extremely well-read is like making them all rich so that you don't have to deal with the plot points of past due bills.

  9. Is there such a thing as "a man's voice" and "a woman's voice" in narrators?

  10. Roth and Plath remind me of one another.

  11. Roth doesn't write sentences where nothing happens. The object of the sentence always has something to do, to accomplish, without figures of speech. This is something to learn: the elegant declarative. (And here Exit Ghost meets Kavalier and Clay.)

  12. Who is Zuckerman's idealized woman? Imaginary Jamie: (a) wants to stay and talk to him; (b) gets him; (c) is open but doesn't care as much whether she's understood; (d) turns him on by loving writers' ways with words.

  13. Nathan Zuckerman doesn't use vulgarities but has his characters use them.

  14. Mr. Zuckerman imagines two men as vying with him for the attention of Jamie: her husband Billy and her once-lover Richard Kliman. The dialogue that Roth puts into both their mouths (or that Zuckerman remembers and reports; with his dodgy memory, he may be overcompensating with characterization) is tilted toward the fantastic. Both yammer on. Yammering, gramatically; yammering, descriptively without a stutter or pause. Contrasting parodies of eloquence and charm.

  15. I think that Jamie broadly drops the hint that she is a lesbian and that Billy is a husband of convenience. It goes right over Mr. Nathan Zuckerman's head, in a way that dates him even more than does his analytical fascination with the omnipresence of cell phones.

  16. I don't know when I stopped breathing toward the end of the George Plimpton passage. Do you look for books that tell you something new about understanding human beings? More wonderful still, about explaining them to each other? Here (and by the way check out the triple like the ones Imaginary Jamie so admired in Conrad):

  17. "I am pitching against the New York Yankees, I am running plays for the Detroit Lions, I am in the ring with Archie Moore in order to report with authority what it is to survive everything that is superior to you and lined up to crush you."

It is an old man, his body failing, who Roth has write those words.

Far more books mean something to me than there are writers who do. I keep putting my hand on the picture of Philip Roth on the back cover, amazed that he's real. He's out there somewhere, and so am I, and so are you. Let's get to our work.

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