Thursday, October 23, 2008


Mark, Reader, my cry! Bend thy thoughts on the Sky,
And in midst of prosperity, know thou may'st die.
--Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

That passage, which appears on a tombstone in a Massachusetts graveyard in Pynchon's novel, came to mind whilst reading Philip Roth's novella Everyman (2006). The story of an aging man's perennial illnesses, unfolding after the initial scene of his burial, could be considered a downer, but, as ever with Roth, there's always something more. The pay-off, for me, is in how "every day" Everyman is: it could be anyone's story, given the Jewish New Jersey antecedents that are, as it were, the door by which most Roth characters enter the world. But because that local reality is reasonably clear to me to begin with -- as opposed, say, to Norwegians in Minnesota or Hispanics in California or Koreans in Illinois -- his books always seem familiar territory and, what's more, given how Jewish is New York intellectual life (if you came up in the '60s), there's always an enduring weight in the encounter with Roth. That fact might be what made me skeptical, no matter how much I admire the books themselves, of American Pastoral's Swede and The Human Stain's half-black passing for white. It's not that Roth can't "do" anything but Jewish, it's just that the baggage of that ethnicity in East Coast America is what he's saddled with and we expect him to heft it.

Which is all by way of saying that Everyman is not quite "everyman" if we meet that phrase with some sense of demographic ubiquity. Which is why, I think, the Pynchon lines are apropos: the real meaning behind the title is not that Roth's nameless everyman is an "everyman," so much that what befalls him will befall, mutatis mutandis, everyman. The book is a meditation on coming to the end of things. As the narrator observes at one point, as "everyman" watches his contemporaries succumb to death: "Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre."

So here's a passage that more or less sums up the main character's predicament. A point that, should we live long enough, we'll all get to:

"Even in his twenties, when he'd thought of himself as square, and on into his fifties, he'd had all the attention from women he could have wanted; from the time he entered art school it never stopped. It seemed as though he were destined for nothing else. But then something unforeseen happened, unforeseen and unpredictable: he had lived close to three quarters of a century, and the productive, active way of life was gone. He neither possessed the productive man's male allure nor was capable of germinating the masculine joys, and he tried not to long for them too much. On his own he had felt for a while that the missing component would somehow return to make him inviolable once again and reaffirm his mastery, that the entitlement mistakenly severed would be restored and he could resume where he'd left off only a few years before. But now it appeared that like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless days through to the end as no more than what he was -- the aimless days and the uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing. This is how it works out, he thought, this is what you could not know."

Granted, this is definitely a prospect for everyman. And that too is as it should be, for Roth has ever been one to ruminate on those "masculine joys" and so, when those are gone, he's not likely to be one to offer the consolations of philosophy or religion -- his everyman does try to paint in old age, as he always wanted to but life got in the way, and though some are appreciative of his efforts, he himself realizes that the reason he didn't become an artist is that he isn't one. So, strike another consolation.

What then are the kind of joys that remain? Memory, mostly. But not of women, by and large, because the "serial husband" has too many regrets where those are concerned. And family, which he truly took joy in, becomes the parents already dead and the beloved older brother he allowed himself to envy, thus poisoning the relationship, on his side. His daughter is the one joy of his life, but even there the love is mainly pained by his worry for her, and by his guilt over the break with her mother. Even if it's not quite true that "hell is other people," it's certainly not true that heaven is. So, here's a glimpse of the masculine joy that stays with him:

" was still his beach and at the center of the circles in which his mind revolved when he remembered the best of boyhood. But how much time could a man spend remembering the best of boyhood? What about enjoying the best of old age? Or was the best of old age just that -- the longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body and that rode the waves from way out where they began to build, rode them with his arms pointed like an arrowhead and the skinny rest of him following behind like the arrow's shaft, rode them all the way in to where his rib cage scraped against the tiny sharp pebbles and jagged clamshells and pulverized seashells at the edge of the shore and he hustled to his feet and hurriedly turned and went lurching through the low surf until it was knee high and deep enough for him to plunge in and begin swimming madly out to the rising breakers -- into the advancing, green Atlantic, rolling unstoppably toward him like the obstinate fact of the future -- and, if he was lucky, make it there in time to catch the next big wave and then the next and the next and the next until from the low slant of inland sunlight glittering across the water he knew it was time to go."

Here is not only a very real sense that "the best of boyhood" is when one had it best, but also the sense that having been there -- wherever "there" is for each of us -- is what matters most when we're insufferably tired of being here. The regrets of Roth's everyman aren't for a life unlived, but rather are grimmer: regardless of how one lives, the body has its own story to tell, so Roth presents us two brothers, one, the elder, is nothing but healthy, wealthy, and kind; the other, our everyman, has a body that constantly needs medical interventions to keep going. So that the existential power of the book is in that simple fact: as Hopkins phrases it, "it is the blight man was born for." The dimming of the powers, the loss of any joy in what the body is and does. Not uplifting, but to sum up the end of a life with such concision, that takes bekies.

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