Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Everyman by Philip Roth

Philip Roth takes on a subject in Everyman that most people spend their lives trying to avoid thinking about. Death haunts the nameless narrator. Like everyone else he dreads it and tries not to think about it but a series of medical setbacks throughout his life means he is often forced to confront it.
Everyman opens in a Jewish graveyard in New Jersey where the narrator's family have gathered to lay him to rest.
Despite a successful career in advertising the narrator managed to alienate many people during his life. His two sons from his first marriage never forgave him for abandoning their mother.
His brother can not understand why the dead man had become so distant from him in the latter years of his life. His second wife had left him because of infidelity.It is only the narrators’ daughter from that second marriage who really mourns him.
Much of Everyman reads like a medical directory describing the conditions which strike down the narrator, how they affect him and the medical procedures that he undergoes to treat them.
We are also given a rundown of the various ailments, often terminal, that afflicted his parents, one of his ex-wives, former work colleagues and neighbours in the retirement village where he spent his final years.
"Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre."
He resents the fragility of his body and the way that it can interfere with the act of living and becomes increasingly resentful about his older brother who remains robustly healthy and has never spent a day in hospital.
Despite his preoccupation with his poor health and ultimate demise the narrator manages to life a full if flawed and bitter life.
He resents his sons for resenting him and not trying to understand that he left their mother because the marriage was unbearable to him.
He regrets the hurt he caused to his second wife and his daughter by having an affair which ultimately led to the break-up of that marriage, only to be followed by a disasterous marriage to a woman who is half his age and unable to cope with the narrator's deteriorating condition.
He spends his final years alone after moving from New York in the wake of 9/11 fearing that his life and those of everyone else in the city are at risk from further attacks.
A recurring setting is the Jewish graveyard, in which he will be eventually buried, where he attends his father's funeral and visits again just a few weeks before his own death.
There is no speculation about what happens after death. Roth's narrator abandoned Judaism just after his bar mitzvah when he was 13 and despite deteriorating health and time spend on life support machines death to him is simply the end of life after which nothing but the decay of the human body happens.
Standing in the cemetery by his parent's grave, and listening to the narrator's stream of consciousness we are told: "The flesh melts away but the bones endure. The bones were the only solace there was to one who put no stock in the afterlife and knew without a doubt that God was a fiction and that this was the only life he'd have."
Although the novel is not an easy read it is in someways a necessary one and even quite liberating.
As John Lennon sang: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” And however much we try to deny it death is the inevitable consequence of life.


Fionnchú said...

Another welcome overlap: check out my review somewhere on my blog and for sure on Amazon US perhaps a year and a half ago? Have you read a lot of Roth? Long ago, Goodbye Columbus, and in grad school his grad school opus Letting Go.

Roth's novels such as Operation Shylock, The Counterlife, and the American Pastoral-Human Stain-I Married a Communist trilogy I liked better for their historical and political contexts. I kept wondering how the novel would end. Thought-provoking, if (as with the late John Updike?) another obvious wish-fulfillment when the old codger comes on to the young babe! A perennial plotline for our Jersey boy.

Tony Bailie said...

John, the only other Roth novel I have read is The Dying Animal - I saw the film version, Envy, last year which I also enjoyed. I bought a couple of Roth novels last week - The Professor of Desire and Portnoy's Complaint - in a secondhand bookshop and got Everyman out of the Library. I did read your review, although I held off until I'd finished Everyman for myself.
Its always a bit daunting coming to an established author for the first time and I suppose while reviews are always a good recommendation I also like to come to a novel with no preconceptions.
Given that, I thought it was interesting that we both described it as a 'necessary read'. Fortunately my father-in-law, who was in hospital last week while I was reading Everyman, got out today after some minor heart surgery. I often pass on books that I've just finished to Sinead but in this case told her she would probably be better not reading it. I suppose it must have been even more poignant for you given your own family circumstances at the time.