Some writers were born to grow old; others, never. Hardy, Beckett, Frost—as they wizened, they only seemed to become more themselves. For Michel Houellebecq, meanwhile, youth is not one season in the cycle of life, but its only true one. Suffering from a terminal envy of the young—oh, to have their ability to “devote themselves unlimitedly to the liberated exultation of their bodies!”—the middle-aged narrator of Houellebecq’s latest novel, The Possibility of an Island, eventually kills himself. So, which kind of writer is Philip Roth? Is he, in spirit, more a Hardy or a Houellebecq? And what kind of novel is his new one, Everyman? Is it the product of a brutally honest mind, winterizing itself against the depredations of old age? Or is it a silly lament over the loss of sexual privilege, cloaked only in pseudo-darkness?
Everyman opens at a northern New Jersey graveside, where Roth’s hero—the Everyman of the title, who throughout remains unnamed—is being buried by the broken remnants of his several families. His one loving child, a daughter, gives a terse but heartfelt eulogy. His sons, 40-something but still children of divorce, drop dirt on the coffin, choked with resentment against a father they will forever regard as a deserter. And when one anonymous mourner pays her final respects, letting “the dirt slip slowly across her curled palm and out the side of her hand onto the coffin, the gesture looked like the prelude to a carnal act.” Together they form a catalog, in a way, of one life’s many emotional evasions. Roth’s Everyman is a retired advertising executive who made his way to the top, or near-top, of his profession, while chafing his way through a predictable set of marriages and infidelities. The bulk of the story, however, concerns Everyman’s final years. Loneliness in the face of inexorable physical decay is a fair description of the novel’s dominant affect. Only a grim series of hospital stays gives its ruminations some structure.
Everyman is a product of a dead era, the great postwar years of seemingly limitless upward mobility. His father had been a small-time entrepreneur in Elizabeth, N.J., a jeweler who, by extending credit generously, put engagement rings on the fingers of the local immigrant working classes. The reminiscences of his father’s store are meticulous and loving, and the narrative is, in important respects, a referendum on the adult responsibility his father appeared to possess without complication and that Everyman has found impossible to sustain:
Contrary to what his wife told everyone, he hadn’t hungered after the wanton freedom to do anything and everything. Far from it. He hungered for something stable all the while he detested what he had. He was not a man who wished to live two lives. He held no grudge against either the limitations or the comforts of conformity. He’d merely wanted to empty his mind of all the ugly thoughts spawned by the disgrace of prolonged marital warfare. He was not claiming to be exceptional. Only vulnerable and assailable and confused.
Everyman’s final wife is a Danish model, a high-strung ninny for whom he forsook a sensible and loving woman. (“This was the wildest venture of his life,” he tells himself of his wild infidelity, “the one, as he was only faintly beginning to understand, that could wipe out everything.”) An old superstition, a relic of the ‘50s and ‘60s, regarded conformity as a kind of living death. In Everyman, we get whispered hints of its opposite, that only the comforts of conformity might have established some bulwark against the indignities of dying.
Now, the most effective form known to man, for bringing his consciousness in line with his own mortal limits, is tragedy. The most effective form known to man, for bringing his consciousness out of line with his own mortal limits, is advertising. Growing old in an age of mass marketing, with all its many confusions regarding age and youth, has created a new genre of writing, part tragedy and part sports-sedanadvertisement, of which Everyman is a prime example. (Hence the critical confusion over the book: Its champions can point to its bleakness, its detractors to the silliness of its preoccupation with sex.) Roth sometimes appears to be in total control of his material, as when, near the end of the book his protagonist, now a man in his late 70s, encounters a woman jogging on the boardwalk near his Jersey retirement home. He stops her, is delighted to find she herself is in advertising (!) and no stranger to the hoaxy come-on: She provocatively encourages his flirtatious advances. He feels an erection growing in his trousers, then adds, “And feeling, too, that sharp sense of individualization, of sublime singularity, that marks a fresh sexual encounter or love affair and that is the opposite of the deadening depersonalization of serious illness.” A few sentences later we learn that he never sees her again. She apparently changed her jogging route to avoid an old man’s deluded lechery.
In other instances, though, Roth’s control is less sure. When a 50-something Everyman meets his 24-year-old Danish girlfriend for a Paris debauch, I wondered if the book wouldn’t better be titled Everyman’s Dreams. No doubt Roth’s own vanity, his celebrity writer’s sense of seigniorial privilege, has led him to over-associate the horror of dying with the loss of sexual vitality. This vanity is supposedly ennobled by a would-be courage, the courage of the hero’s—and presumably Roth’s—unremitting materialism. As he tells us, “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness—the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers.” But what could Philip Roth know about evolution and unaccommodated man that Thomas Hardy didn’t? What’s lacking in Everyman isn’t darkness—there’s darkness in abundance—but that dark joy of the total ironist, of the writer who always knew the natural world was both the sole author of his desires and their mortal enemy. Everyman is a sustained and often beautiful performance, but we should identify much of its suffering for what it is: not a muted existential cri de coeur in an age of The Selfish Gene but a grumble at the loss of virility in an age of Viagra.