Sunday, April 23, 2006


Douglas Kennedy compares Philip Roth's "brilliant new novel" Everyman with Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. While the latter, he says, anaesthetises loss "with a bucket-full of balm", Everyman "confronts the nullity towards which we all travel"; "Roth spares us little when it comes to detailing the minutiae of disease". It seems to be strong contrast. Yet after reading the review and an extract (link via Rake's Progress), I wonder how different they are really; for what does that particular confrontation mean when it comes to narrative? Kennedy says:
Roth is not the sort of writer who trades in elegant metaphysical ruminations about death and its attendant mysteries. If anything, this novel is rooted in the realpolitik of human transience, and the horror of growing old.
But perhaps narrative is itself a kind of metaphysical rumination (even if it isn't the writer who does the thinking). It circles death as words circle silence. Is it impolite to mention this? For how can storytelling confront the end of life when it is itself something that never ends? After all, every novel can be read again and again. If Roth doesn't let his protagonist live on in heaven, as Sebold does, he cannot really kill his everyman. He is born again with each reading.

So, while Roth appears to resist Sebold's naive projection of the impossibility of narrative death into metaphysical hope, every novel he writes implicitly shares it. When Kennedy says
the genius of [Everyman] stems from the way that Roth turns his desolate assessment of death into something bracing: an angry acceptance that mortality is the price we pay for the sheer wonder of this thing called life
it suggests that the contrast he began with is only one of tact. Acceptance of death is the same whether it's angry or meek.

I should point out that this is not Roth's fault. Every novel does it. It's just that not all novels wish to recognise let alone confront it.

We're constantly being told that literature is not a substitute for life. That constancy should tell us something. We keep on having to remind ourselves. We retreat from life to reiterate its primacy.

Roth's acceptance of this might be why the narrative details of Everyman focus on the corporeal rather than explicit "metaphysical ruminations". What would his numerous fans - keen to present literary fiction with a human face - say if the novel included any reference to its contradictory status? How indeed might one include that status in form and content? I ask this question each time when confronted with the maddening immortality of literature.

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