Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth

ISBN 0547239696 (ISBN13: 9780547239699)

Upon rereading, I found this book more engrossing than before. Upgraded rating from 3 to 4.

Why? I liked the strong emotional core. There is usually an influx of emotion and logic in Roth’s books. In this one, the emotional fragility of characters is pronounced. The fragility of strained relationships is par for the course for literary fiction of all stripes and this is not the first time I’ve seen the washed-up actor character trope used, but it it fits in well with Roth’s preoccupation with older men sleeping with younger women. It’s got all the grab-bag elements from his oeuvre: sickness, lack of mental stability, people going through the motions, losing the edge, losing the battle against aging, society’s expectations being too high, succumbing to sensual obsessions, art, drama, and a touch of dread.

Our main character, Axler gets locked in his role as an old American male, and is yet unable to act, which had been his calling. Could this be a comment on Roth’s writing and reputation, since this book was written when the author was in his seventies? The difference between living a life and playing a role is not always well-defined.

You have in here the quintessential fears of life: man’s ultimate ineptitude, the ineffectual therapies which are presented to us as ultimate options, and more. Roth can be dramatically persuasive at times. We are reminded how easy it is to slip into self-delusion, and that this is all part of staging the grand performance of “your life.”

Accomplishment and failure, how these define us. Regret and pride. Dignity, or the lack thereof. The precariousness of any of life’s or relationship’s perceived stability. How controllable is one’s trajectory? The marriage of a man to his work, the ups and downs, and the artist’s responsibility to reinvent himself. How the fear of failure in anything can be paralyzing, and persistent denial can get us through tough times, but only provides a temporary reprieve.

Parts of the book resemble a stage play, and the setting is minimal. Also discussed are the politics of maintaining a front, the responsibility of parents toward grown children, confidence, liberty, how easily doubt creeps in and undermines the enactment of a life, the little messes in which we wallow, the twisted relationships that cross our path, and the pursuit of happiness and how it differs from the pursuit of pleasure. Spiraling self-sabotage and of course, the inevitable end. Should we change or compromise ourselves to please the person we love? Good old mortality rears his head at every juncture. It teaches us how to properly disregard the advice of others. The author posits that love requires living in the moment. All relationships carry the risk of pain if they are worth anything. Lastly, gratuitous sex. Or just enough for Philip Roth devotees.

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