Eliza Doolittle in Prada shoes

November 19, 2009 by · 6 Comments 

The Humbling. Philip Roth; Hamish Hamilton Canada, $30.00 cloth, 150 pp., 978-0-670-06971-2.

There’s no shortage of erotic fiction; what distinguishes Roth’s is its outrageousness. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to be “erotically” shocking, considerable feats of imagination are required to produce a charge of outrage adequate to his purposes. It is therefore not easy to understand why people complain and say things like “this time he’s gone over the top” by being too outrageous about women, the Japanese, the British, his friends and acquaintances, and so forth. For if nobody feels outraged the whole strategy has failed.

– Frank Kermode

humblingYes, ever since Roth had poor, neurotic Portnoy violate that hunk of raw liver, one facet of his ongoing project has been to imagine and describe increasingly outrageous sex acts in all their … um … naked glory. Fetishism, voyeurism, water sports, onanism, older women with younger men, older men with younger women, sodomy, threesomes: at one point or another all of these and more have made appearances in Roth’s fiction. And, indeed, the response to what critic Mark Shechner has called Roth’s “testosterobatics” has been, from many circles, outrage – in particular, because the priapism in Roth’s novels is presented without any trace of moralizing judgment or qualification. Referring to Sabbath’s Theater, perhaps the most extensive and explicit catalogue of sexual escapades and peccadilloes in Roth’s not insubstantial oeuvre (and the book that prompted the Kermode comment above), Shechner avers that the novel “refuses to justify itself, to claim its outlawry to be more than outlawry, its naked psychic spillage more than naked psychic spillage.”

Of course, “naked psychic spillage” on its own would be entirely uninteresting, except from the perspective of pornography; what elevates Roth’s writing is his brazen intensity, his unvarnished honesty in laying bare the often uncomfortable truths about the masculine psyche, his seething anger at our commonly accepted societal hypocrisies, and his apparent inability to craft a boring sentence. Moreover, for a literary writer of Roth’s stature, his late-career output has been astounding, on both a qualitative and quantitative level.

Indeed, when Sabbath’s Theater appeared in 1995, it was suggested that the novel represented the apogee of everything the author had intended to say in his career; following its publication, many expected Roth to retreat into a cozy retirement. Two years later, he published American Pastoral, the first of a monumental trilogy that eviscerated postwar America in a furious volley of righteous indignation. American Pastoral is not only one of the greatest American novels of the last 25 years, it signalled the onset of a late-career rebirth for Roth. Volume after volume appeared, on an almost annual basis, each one as potent as the last.

Following the corrosively political American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain), Roth, by then approaching his 70s, turned his attention to the twin subjects of aging and death. With the exception of his Sinclair Lewis–inspired alternate history, The Plot Against America, and the college-age protagonist of last year’s Indignation, Roth’s novels became meditations on the various ways the body betrays us as we make our inevitable march to the grave. They were also paeans to masculine sexuality, which remains potent long after the ravages of the body have removed the ability to do anything about it. Both David Kepesh in The Dying Animal and Nathan Zuckerman in Exit Ghost try to recapture some of their lost youth by becoming involved with much younger women, a tactic that is also employed by Simon Axler in Roth’s latest novel, The Humbling.

Axler, who is 65 when the novel opens, is described as “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors” (substitute the word “writers” and this description could easily fit Axler’s creator). But unlike Zuckerman in Exit Ghost, rendered impotent by an operation on a cancerous prostate, Axler’s impotence is of a different kind: he has lost the ability to act. Cast as Prospero and Macbeth in productions at the Kennedy Center, “he failed appallingly at both.” “He couldn’t do low-intensity Shakespeare,” Roth writes, “and he couldn’t do high-intensity Shakespeare – and he’d been doing Shakespeare all his life. His Macbeth was ludicrous and everyone who saw it said as much, and so did many who hadn’t seen it.”

Filled with existential dread at the prospect of losing the one thing that gave his life meaning Axler retreats into a state of despair that causes his wife to leave him and sends him into a downward spiral of suicidal depression. What lifts him out of his torpor – at least temporarily – is the affair that he initiates with Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the daughter of an acting couple who were once Axler’s good friends. Pegeen is 25 years Axler’s junior. She is also a lesbian. When Pegeen drops by to visit Axler one day, she tends to his scraped hand after he takes a tumble and offers him a glass of water; this act of common tenderness arouses dormant erotic feelings in Axler, who seduces the younger woman. Pegeen comes bearing emotional baggage – her long-term girlfriend has betrayed her by undergoing hormone therapy and deciding to pursue sex reassignment surgery – and a toy chest full of goodies such as a cat o’ nine tails and a strap-on dildo.

This, of course, is where Roth brings on the outrage. The sex in the novel is typically explicit, but also traffics in a kind of adolescent male wish-fulfillment fantasy aspect:

At first she lost her know-how up there and he had to guide her with his two hands to give her the idea. “I don’t know what to do,” Pegeen said shyly. “You’re on a horse,” Axler told her. “Ride it.” When he worked his thumb into her ass she sighed with pleasure and whispered, “Nobody’s ever put anything in there before” – “Unlikely,” he whispered back – and when later he put his cock in there, she took as much as she could of it until she couldn’t take any more. “Did it hurt?” he asked her. “It hurt, but it’s you.” Often she would hold his cock in her palm afterward and stare as the erection subsided. “What are you contemplating?” he asked. “It fills you up,” she said, “the way dildos and fingers don’t. It’s alive. It’s a living thing.”

There is quite a lot of this kind of thing, much of it playing off a rather tired recapitulation of the Madonna/whore dichotomy.

Although the novel attempts to imply that the act of embarking on a sexual affair with Axler was done under Pegeen’s volition, impelled by her sense of anger and betrayal at her ex-girlfriend’s decision – “If Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female” – the active agent in the early stages is Axler, who seduces the younger woman by playing a Schubert recording for her, then keeps her by buying her expensive clothes and Prada shoes. The caricaturing of the lesbian character as obviously indulgent in the fetishism of sex toys is offensive, and the notion that a homosexual woman can be easily “turned” by a suitably potent and generous male reflects the perpetuation of a pernicious misogynist myth. It is unclear what the point is of making Pegeen a lesbian in the first place – if it is meant as a skewering of our politically correct sanctimonies, this hardly comes across, and if, as Frank Kermode suggests, it is meant to produce “a charge of outrage adequate to [Roth’s] purposes,” what that purpose might be remains, in this instance, obscure.

Axler is a stage actor, and the middle section of the novel, titled “The Transformation,” clearly evokes Pygmalion; Axler is a kind of latter-day Henry Higgins, outfitting his Eliza Doolittle in designer clothes and jewellery, buying her “luxurious lingerie to replace the sport bras and gay briefs” and “little satin babydolls to replace her flannel pajamas.” He takes her to a hair stylist so that she can have her hair cut “in a style unlike the cropped mannish one she’d favored throughout her adult life.” Watching his reluctant charge in the hairdresser’s chair, “sitting there at the edge of humiliation, unable even to look at her reflection,” Axler begins to question the motivation behind the affair:

What is the draw of a woman like this to a man who is losing so much? Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other than who she was? Wasn’t he dressing her up in costume as though a costly skirt could dispose of nearly two decades of lived experience? Wasn’t he distorting her while telling himself a lie – and a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless? What if he proved to be no more than a brief male intrusion into a lesbian life?

The conflict between Axler’s impulse to dress Pegeen in the costume of a heterosexual woman – as though she were merely playing a role on the stage, one that she can easily slough off once the performance is over – and the larger implications of indulging in “a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless” provides the middle section of the book with a kind of ironic tension, but whether this is sufficient to overcome the misogynistic stereotyping that pervades the narrative is a question that even the most sympathetic reader will have difficulty answering in the affirmative.

Of course, Roth is a tragedian, which means that things don’t turn out well for Axler. Whether Pegeen was or was not an active accomplice in initiating the affair, whether it was indeed her conscious decision to renounce her experience with her ex-girlfriend in the most dramatic way she could imagine, in the final section of the book she becomes the driving force in determining Axler’s fate; individual readers will have to decide whether her role in Axler’s humbling is sufficient to rescue the novel from the cartoonish  nature of what has gone before.

In the book’s final 10 pages, Roth does manage to hit his stride: the pent-up rage that Axler feels over his own inadequacies is finally released in a furious outburst of indignation. The closing pages of The Humbling recall the best of Roth: the intensity, the anger, the bracing, Chekhovian tragedy. (Chekhov’s tragic hero Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev figures prominently in the novel’s final scene.) At a brief 140 printed pages, The Humbling – little more than a novella – is minor Roth: a short, ultimately unsatisfying detour in an otherwise extraordinary literary career.


6 Responses to “Eliza Doolittle in Prada shoes”
  1. Finn Harvor says:

    “And, indeed, the response to what critic Mark Shechner has called Roth’s “testosterobatics” has been, from many circles, outrage – in particular, because the priapism in Roth’s novels is presented without any trace of moralizing judgment or qualification.”

    I think this is an accurate description of the sensibility one associates with Roth. And that in turn raises a few (from my point of view, at least) interesting questions:

    1. Why so little sex of this sort in CanLit? Yes, we’ve got our Smiths and our up-and-comers (no pun entirely intended) such as — and here I’m going on the review descriptions — Foads and Joneses. But the words Roth is inclined to use — crude words, unambiguous words — set off alarm bells of the most visceral sort among CanLitty types; at least, this was the case when I was still in Canada seven years ago. Can it have changed that much?

    2. Just so it doesn’t seem I’m unquestioningly in favour of Roth’s favoured approach (“testosterobatics” indeed), I have sympathy for those who want heartfelt emotion in their lit and not just priapic drive; I used to be a Roth fanboy when I was young; his act has gotten a bit tired for me now. But Roth *is* direct, *is* blunt. These characteristics tend to be muted — if not punished — in at least some Canadian literary circles. The reality is this: write about sex frankly in Canada, and you reduce your chances of getting published by a country mile (2.3 kilometers, I believe, with the conversion). What is to be done?

    3. Steven, if you’ll allow me an “esprit d’escalier” moment here: a while back I asked you for a list of clearly towering works, and you provided three: GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, AMERICAN PASTORAL, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN (none Canadian, incidentally).

    First, a preamble: I’m not entirely convinced these works won quite the universality of praise you imply; Pynchon has as many detractors as admirers, and Roth is primarily — as this post makes clear — a biographer of the Lusting Self, not a social novelist. In other words, AP is not a representative work of his oeuvre, and therefore I don’t think the good reviews the novel did indeed garner possessed the same passion that would have greeted a mid/late-career work by a writer who had mined the same thematic material for many years. Therefore, AP is admired, but not loved with the sort of fulsomeness that, to use your phrase, is rewarded to a work that is *immediately* seen as towering. (I don’t have an opinion one way or another about Rushdie).

    Now, here’s the thing: all these works are — badabing! — examples of historical fiction. What gives? Clarification would be appreciated.

  2. Finn Harvor says:

    “such as … our Foads and Joneses”

  3. Steven W. Beattie says:

    American Pastoral is narrated in the present, actually, by Nathan Zuckerman, who is looking back on the life of the Swede. But, I take your point. It was never my intention to suggest that ALL historical fiction is invalid, merely that the hegemony it seems to hold over our literature needs to be reconsidered.

  4. Finn Harvor says:

    “American Pastoral is narrated in the present, actually, by Nathan Zuckerman, who is looking back on the life of the Swede.”

    The work remains, as I described it, an example of historical fiction — i.e., a work containing substantial historical content. Flashbacks, movements between time-present and time-past, even placing characters temporarily in the future can all be ingredients of a work that also contains substantial historical material.

    Incidentally, I’ve never disagreed with your call to reconsider the clear preferences of the Canadian literary establishment; that’s one reason I read this blog with such regularity (and such — dare I say it? — joy). My disagreement is with your blanket characterization of historical fiction as prime cause of the Canadian LitCult malaise — its (as you have put it) blandness.

    Two reasons for this disagreement come to mind: first, in a general sense, I have never bought the argument that historical fiction is a genre in the strict sense; unlike SF or mysteries, where one very occasionally finds works that transcend genre, in historical fiction one finds this very often — from (my personal list of faves here) Graves’ I. CLAUDIUS to Singer’s THE MANOR to Rolvaag’s GIANTS IN THE EARTH to Undset’s KIRSTEN LAVRANSDATTER series, one finds works that are successfully literary. As I said a while back, history is just the now as it once was. Some writers seem able to channel that better than others.

    Second, if you want — really, truly wanna wanna want — change in CanLit, I think you’ll agree that one is wisest to identify the causes of its malaise first before agitating for transformation. Personally, I strongly support your ongoing campaign to reform the Gillers, and I disagree with the commentators here who have criticized you for paying too much attention to them and then writing critically about a fair percentage of the titles on their shortlists. Criticize on, I say. That’s the mark of a serious critic. Don’t water down what you really think and feel, and stay in touch with your guts.

    My disagreement instead is with your apparent assertion that replacing a hegemony (“hammerlock” was your original term) of one form over the other is going to solve anything. For one thing, is it even true that historical fiction dominates Canadian literary production as a percentage? I lived in Canada for most of my life, spent immense amounts of time reading books, reading reviews, and visiting bookstores. Certain works of historical fiction sold very well (as Kim MacArthur has recently observed), but a lot of the small press material took the form of bildungsroman and other species of autobiography. When one includes short stories and poetry (also, obviously, literature (your category of choice in your comment above)), this becomes even more true. And when one factors in the great vitality of personal journalism, including its underground variants, like Bruce la Bruce and Donna Lypchuck, it becomes truer still. The problem in CanLit has tended to be that good, vital work gets ignored, or not published at all. That’s the problem.

    You cite a few posts back contemporary topics a writer might focus on — the Conrad Black scandal, etc. Fine, good suggestions. But consider what happened several years ago when the Paul Bernardo trial took place. Not just one but two novels were written about it — Lynn Crosbie’s PAUL’S CASE and Jude MacDonald’s JANE (I’ll have to double-check on this, but that’s how I remember it). [Fringe theatre note: a production entitled CREEP CRUSH also got staged.] Both novels have effectively been forgotten. This is what happens in English Canada. We ignore work, we stifle it.

    The filtering process doesn’t work in my dear old native land. It doesn’t work at the level of manuscript selection among agents and acquisition editors. It doesn’t work at the level of contemporary canon formation.

    Reform the filter.

  5. Steven W. Beattie says:

    I agree with you, Finn, on both counts. Historical fiction as a generic category is problematic. All fiction (except for speculative fiction set in the future) is historical. Five minutes ago is historical. However, I do think the designation is useful to describe a particular type of book. When we say “historical fiction,” my sense is that we have a general idea of what we’re referring to: Elizabethan costume dramas, Masterpiece Theatre-style sagas, etc. Or fictionalized biographies of historical figures like Norman Bethune or Rockwell Kent, to pick two examples from that earlier post.

    Also, it’s true that smaller houses with limited marketing budgets are producing edgier work that is more of-the-moment. It’s equally true that neither Jane (a successful literary work, in my opinion) nor Paul’s Case (less successful, I think) were or are likely to get much attention. The houses that published them (The Mercury Press in the former case, Insomniac Press in the latter) don’t have access to the media machine that would allow them to promote their books in the way that Random House or HarperCollins can, and the continued insistence on peopling literary juries (I’m looking at you, Giller) with elder statesmen and women who share a single literary sensibility precludes a broad recognition of the very real diversity that our literature has to offer.

  6. Andrew S says:

    I’d have to disagree that five minutes ago is historical; this is true only in the strictest system of logic, under which the present probably ceases to exist. And that kind of thinking isn’t particularly helpful when we talk about books. I’d accuse a book of being historical if its setting predates living memory at time of writing, so that it is not recognizably our own.

    I also disagree with the contention that edgy work drops off the radar because the filters are broken. Certainly, the fact that this work is published at all indicates that the first level of filters is not broken. And as Steven pointed out, its failure to succeed is, in large part, a product of small promotional budgets. Books can’t persist in the national imagination if few people have read them.

    Canada’s fundamental problem is a small market. An agent can’t afford to take a chance on a first novel by an unknown; sales are unpredictable and are not always tied to quality, and names count. The large publishers, also, predictably will prefer to work with writers who have a proven track record of sales. This isn’t a broken filter; it’s a business, and the aim is to make money. So they wait for small press writers with good reviews and good commercial potential to move up.

    The interesting question is, do those small press writers who move to bigger and (presumably) better things start producing less interesting work? I’m not even sure that’s true, personally.

    Or, is less interesting work more commercially viable in Canada, and why?