Old age poignantly revealed in ‘Exit Ghost’ | AspenTimes.com

Old age poignantly revealed in ‘Exit Ghost’

Stewart Oksenhorn

Title: Exit GhostAuthor: Philip RothPublisher: Houghton MifflinPrice: $26

Nathan Zuckerman, the recurring fictional stand-in for novelist Philip Roth, has reached the age of 71 in Roths latest book, Exit Ghost. And in Roths 24th novel, Zuckerman isnt just getting older. Hes getting worse.Zuckermans aging process is not merely a breaking down of the body. His deterioration only begins with the removal of his prostate, and the resulting incontinence and impotence. This is a decline of the corpus and the soul, the mind and the will. He forgets, he makes poor judgment calls. His temper is terrible. And what makes him angriest is youth, and all things of this new world that remind him of his own state.Cell phones are a big object of his ire. They were, Zuckerman thinks to himself, while sitting in a Manhattan coffee shop, an inevitable technological development, and yet, in their abundance, I saw the measure of how far I had fallen away from the community of contemporary souls. I dont belong here anymore. … My memory has lapsed. Go.In fact, Zuckerman had gone. Years ago, in Roth novels past, Zuckerman had retreated from the world, exited New York City for a predictable near-solitude on a New England mountain, where he could work on his writing. He had turned his head away from news, women, the messiness of life. But a prostate procedure that had a 50/50 chance of improving his incontinence has drawn him back to New York, and in a rash moment inspired by faded connections, he decides to trade his solitary, rural existence for an apartment on the Upper West Side.No sooner does he re-enter New York than life gets in his face. There are women: Jamie, whose youth and beauty drives Zuckerman to crippling fantasy; and Amy, a sick old lady, another reminder of lifes downward spiral. Worse is the young writer, eager to pick his mind about a deceased, obscure novelist whom Zuckerman briefly knew ages ago. The thought of an intrepid, energetic upstart digging up dirt on a dead man is repulsive enough; that Zuckerman should be drafted into the effort makes him seethe, drool and want to beat it back to his seclusion.The cosmic joke underlying Exit Ghost is that Roth at 74, three years older than Zuckerman retains remarkable faculties as a writer. He may have lost some stamina; Exit Ghost, like last years Everyman, is short and narrow in scope, even compared to some of Roths recent works. But his economy doesnt prevent him from weaving into his story a passage about George Plimpton, a withering riff on George W. Bush, and a clever literary device that has Zuckerman turning his going-nowhere relationship with Jamie into something bigger, that exists only in his mind. Like the Bob Dylan CD Time Out of Mind, Exit Ghost defies the fragility of old age by revealing it with such vitality.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com