Looking back over a few weeks' blogging I sometimes note, not the books that I have mentioned, but the books that I've read that somehow haven't, in one way or another, made it into my entries here on RSB. The "absent" books may not have formed any part of the blog, but they have often been important as part of my thinking about literature and its attendant difficulties. (Or, rather, my ongoing difficulties with literature.) One such unmentioned book is Philip Roth's Everyman. I found the work hugely flawed. But, then, flaws are what make a work of art interesting, of course. There is no such thing as a perfect life and, so, a perfect novel is itself impossible to imagine. It would be like finding out that there really is an answer to the riddle that is life, the universe and everything; such an answer could only ever be a banality.

Everyman was received with mixed reviews (Tim Adams in the Guardian praised it highly; Michiko Kakutani called it, "a cobbled-together production of a writer coasting wearily along on automatic pilot") and my own feelings share the critics' general ambivalence. AS Byatt glossed the story thus: "The book opens with his funeral, and ends with the moment of his death on the operating table. In between, with a blunt and steady progress, the reader sees through his eyes the slow dissolution of his body." But it isn't the story that is interesting here (in truth, a good tale is the last thing I'm looking for when I read a novel): it is the form and the style of the work. Both whether the form and the style engage with the content, reflect it, bolster its truth and whether, in themselves, they question, in some way, the very certainty of the endeavour that is writing.

John Banville called Roth's style in Everyman "measured, understated, withholding - in a word, plain." Certainly, it is the plainness that is most affecting about the piece. Not, here, the macho, unadorned, "muscular" prose of any number of post-Hemingway writers (from the Beats to Fante and Bukowski), but something more artful, refined and reserved. Prosaic, here, because it is restrained, not because it is vapid. And artful because, starting as the story does with our Everyman's funeral, the narrative has nowhere to go, no real surprises to spring. And how apt that is! The inevitability of the narrative is admitted at the outset. The absurdity of the endeavour written into the writing of the piece: I can't go on writing, because my character is already dead, I'm already dead. I'll go on writing.

Only writing that knows the absurdity of writing in a world where death has undone so many should expect our time and effort. This is a slight work from Roth, uneven in its tone, unbelievable in some of its dialogue, seemingly rushed in some of its phrasing, confused in overall effect. But it is a compelling and troubling work even so. Its assurance is belied by the discomfiting truths that the very shape of the work embodies. And its inability to remain assured in the face of the truths it is awkwardly working out make the novel, I think, if not entirely satisfying, honest and praiseworthy.

Readers Comments

  1. A clear and agreeable argument about the book. Thanks for the interesting review links as well.

    My own thoughts on Roth's latest here (for what they're worth):

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