Book review: The Humbling
The Humbling was presented as the 30th novel by one of America’s most honoured living authors, Philip Roth. As such, one approaches it with certain preliminary expectations — only to be totally underwhelmed. That is not to say readers familiar with Roth’s bold, unflinching style and his sexually explicit language, or even those who are encountering the novelist for the first time here, will be disappointed.
Roth is a consummate writer. His fiction is famously known for its rigorously autobiographical nature and embellished but deeply personal experiences that blur the boundary between art and life. So, written when he was 76, the book’s meditation on aging — and the physical debility, the fear, and the insecurities that come with it — is hardly surprising. And because of that, perhaps, the narrative is often honest, penetrating, and sobering.
Equally, however, Roth seems determined to make dramatic fiction of this slim volume, that veers too often too close to a thespian piece — albeit not in form, but surely in plot. And, like most thespian works, the turns of events feel affected, and their justifications ambiguous, if not curious. In fact, the reader is forewarned fairly early in the story when the protagonist tells his psychiatrist, “Nothing has a good reason for happening…it’s all caprice.”
Simon Axler, 65, “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors” has “lost his magic”. Where he was always able to inhabit the role he played on stage, to forget whom he was when he was up there performing, he no longer can; where art became life (and indeed life, art), that has come to an end. Then, following spectacular failures both as Prospero and Macbeth in a double bill at the Kennedy Center, the overwrought actor suffers a mental breakdown so “colossal” his wife takes flight.
If Roth is good at muddying the life of his fictitious characters and that of the author himself, he is excellent, too, at drawing the distinction between Axler and the role he (Axler) feels he is playing of himself i.e. there is a distance between Axler the observer, and Axler the actor (of himself). And in the same way that art is not life for him on stage, art is not life for him off stage: “He could not convince himself he was mad anymore than he’d been able to convince himself…he was Prospero or Macbeth.”
In a bleak scene of the mental hospital where patients are moved through art therapy, group therapy, and psychiatric consultations, Roth describes their stories as akin to a maelstrom of “ancient themes of dramatic literature” that include “incest, betrayal, vengeance, jealousy, desire, loss, and grief”.
And as if wanting to save Axler from his illusory detachment, to help convince him that he is mad like the others, that he is himself, no less, Roth sets out to write his primary character into a tale replete with these “ancient themes”. Except that Axler’s tale encapsulates tales of several other characters, each one loosely inserted, but all manifesting the same melodramatic cries.
First, we meet Sybil Van Buren, a fellow patient Axler encounters at the hospital, and a well-known plastic surgeon’s wife, who later shoots her husband for sexually violating her young daughter from a previous marriage.
Then, out of the blue, appears 40-year-old Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the lesbian daughter of two performers Axler used to work with in a New York Theatre, with whom the now-discharged but barely-rehabilitated actor shares a brief and tempestuous affair. After her woman companion of six years leaves her to become a man, Pegeen decides that “if Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, [she] could become a heterosexual female”. So, still hurting from the betrayal, probably in a fit of vengeance, “she undid her jeans and was with a man for the first time since college.”
Meanwhile, red-head Louise Renner, the newly jilted university dean — whom Pegeen had seduced, just before copulating with Axler, to secure a new teaching job — starts harrassing her, and those around her. Unable to win Pegeen back, Louise treks her way to Axler’s house, and in an act of revenge (whether wittingly or not) manages to creep her way into his mind so that “while [Axler and Pegeen] were having sex [Axler was not] able to keep the red-haired Valkyrie out of his mind.”
But what makes the narration feel even more like a theatrical drama (and sometimes, soap opera) however — apart from the almost Pygmalion spectacle in which Pegeen is physically transmuted from a “girl-boy” to looking “soft and curvaceous and enticing” — is Axler’s oblivion to Pegeen’s motivations that are patent in everyone else’s eyes. When she displays inexplicable reticence in disclosing their relationship to her parents, it is obvious their “affair” is to her just that — an affair. When even Axler notices how vulnerable she looks at the salon before her transformative hair cut, it is plain she is but a reluctant heterosexual woman; for whatever the nurture, her nature is inherently mannish and butch. And her sexual fantasies (and sex acts) will only serve as further and shocking corroboration.
In case one thinks dramas are not dramas unless they come with a metaphor or two, Roth has also obliged by forcibly hoisting one on his ambivalent readers: in his struggle with lost talent, with age, and with mortality, Axler sees himself in a dying possum — a nocturnal animal desperate in broad daylight — that retreats into a “cave-like interior” before disappearing forever from the world. But how well the allegory adds to the novel as a whole, and is not merely an awkward afterthought, is arguably a rather different matter altogether.
In the latter scenes of “The Last Act” — there is perhaps no coincidence why the third and last chapter is so named — in which Axler lives out his own illusion of Pegeen’s non-existent desire for him to father her child, Roth seems to want us to draw the obscure allusion that the distance between Axler, the observer, and Axler, the actor (of himself), is narrowing, that his art is finally becoming his life.
When Pegeen inevitably leaves him, Axler’s delusional jumping to all the wrong conclusions — that she has decided to accede to the pleas of her parents who have objected to their relationship out of jealousy of his past fame they themselves never won — goes on to reinforce the fact, not to mention the final action he takes to seal off the equation for good.
I suppose when one anticipates The Humbling to be an autobiographical fiction from an author renown for this oxymoron, the theatrical farce here is enough to let you down.
That said, nonetheless, is this not Roth’s whole point, after all? That art is life, and life, art.