Toby Saul reviews Everyman by Philip Roth
"Death," observed Philip Larkin apropos of the impossibility of courage or anything else making the slightest bit of difference to ones mortality, "is no different whined at than withstood." This is the problem that pierces Philip Roth's characters, or against which they break. The blank intransigence of death is, in his latest novel, the organising theme against which all the players' actions and aspirations are entirely impotent. That death conquers all is not, of course, a remotely original concept. But there cannot be many novels where the pursuit of this thought is so unyieldingly prosecuted. This is not a long book, but I can think of few others, outside of thrillers, where so many characters are introduced simply to be mown down by the author within a few dozen pages. The novel's title comes from a didactic English mediaeval play where Death is instructed by God to visit a living man in order to teach him the value of piety. The message of the play, in the ethics and cosmology of the Middle Ages, concerns the inevitability of extinction and the necessity of living a God-fearing life. In Roth's contemporary America extinction is as unavoidable as ever, but the pious life has been replaced by a kind of morose bewilderment.
His Everyman, a pensioned advertising industry time-server living in unhappy and frustrated old age in an east coast retirement village, is haunted by three failed marriages, rebuked by the existence of two sons who despise him, and only partly compensated by the nearby presence of a cherished and loving daughter. He is sustained by the memory of his childhood, a vivid and consoling past of contented family life and uninterrupted vitality before the onset of the ill-health that dogs his maturity. It is also the memory of Arcadia, before death intervened, stole his beloved parents and set in motion the process of his own inevitable decay.
In Philip Roth books you used to get sex and death as an eternally bickering couple, or double act. The fact that sex never had a chance of winning the argument did not mean that it could not kick up an almighty amount of noise. The tireless pursuit of sexual consolation and release that overwhelmed the men in Roth novels, the entirely unreasonable commands of the male libido that pursued them through their lives, at least allowed them a pulpit from which they could rant. Now, however, you just get death; death as the all-conquering victor of the world and theme of the work.
Unarguably, then, it is a rather grim book. Humanistically speaking, it has impeccable credentials. God is not only absent, but a kind of hollow joke that even Everyman, an otherwise faintly gullible character, cannot take seriously. He enjoys the familiar background of Rothian heroes: working-class Jews born into the New Jersey of the 1930s. But his Jewish faith declined from the onset of adolescence and the arrival of adulthood involved a brisk rejection of the 'babytalk' of belief.
So there is no God. But neither is there the claim, that you can find advanced in some atheistic circles, that the non-existence of a deity is felt to be a comfort. And there is no solace to be found in cosmic anger at God for not existing. There is just the inevitable approach of extinction. Roth used to be the most riotously funny novelist alive, and while the humour is still there, it is of a pretty dark kind. Perhaps this is the natural arc in the career of a comic writer.
Roth's novels have always insisted on the fundamental incoherence of the world. Now, however, as his own old age approaches he no longer finds it quite so entertaining. But the bleakness of the outlook is redeemed, partly, by the affection with which Roth looks back to the scene of his childhood. The New Jersey of the 1930s is a much-loved, fortifying presence. Everyman's childhood memories are drenched in blazing summer light.
One major difference between this and earlier Roth books is the relative absence of talk. Roth books used to be brim-full of talk; garrulous cascades from men on hair triggers who were simply unable to stop the streams of chatter that came flowing out of them. Now, however, the conversation (which, incidentally, was also the primary engine of Roth's comedy) is dealt out with far less generosity than before. The great soliloquies that once stretched luxuriously over dozens of pages are absent and Roth denies his characters the bracing eloquence to which his readers have become accustomed.
But the taciturnity is also a function of the general inability of the characters to get to grips with their mortality. The book opens, appropriately enough, at Everyman's graveside. His brother struggles to find the right words for the oration: "Let's see if I can do it. Now let's get to this guy. About my brother " Does he manage it? Can he hit upon the right word, the just phrase that only a lifetime's sibling intimacy can impart? Of course not. Everyman's passage through life has made no more sense and left no more of a coherent impression on his family than it has on himself. What comfort he has managed to salvage has been taken from brief, dazzling visions of the beauty of the world that are handed out randomly and only to some, with scandalous indifference to fairness and propriety.