In recent years, Philip Roth has written a series of slim and bleak novels about the horrors of decline and death. In both Everyman and Exit Ghost, Roth’s narrators struggle through pain and illness in acute consciousness of the looming fact of their mortality. Simon Axler, the sixty-five-year-old narrator of The Humbling, Roth’s thirtieth book, shares their fate, but not their self-conscious awareness of its inevitability. After four decades of success in the theatre, Axler, “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors” (p. 2), abruptly loses his ability to perform. Agonized by his failure and also wracked by physical pain, he retreats to his house in upstate New York and suffers a psychological breakdown. He cannot understand why or how his powers have vanished, and it is this ignorance, as much as the loss itself, that has reduced him to a state of despair.
Axler finds brief reprieve from his inevitable doom in the form of Pegeen, the daughter of two of his co-stars in a long-ago production of Playboy of the Western World. Although Pegeen is now a “lithe, full-breasted woman of forty” (p. 49), Axler first encountered her “as a tiny infant nursing at her mother’s breast” (p. 43). When she takes a position as a professor at a small women’s college not far from Axler’s country home, the two immediately enter into an affair—a turn of events made all the more improbable by the fact that Pegeen has been a lesbian throughout her adult life.
Under the sway of Axler’s apparently extraordinary sexual prowess, Pegeen becomes a rapid and rabid convert to heterosexuality. “It fills you up,” she tells Axler approvingly, “the way dildos and fingers don’t. It’s alive” (p. 92). He also buys her a new designer wardrobe and convinces her to grow out her hair and to begin wearing makeup. At first these changes make her “paralyzingly self-conscious,” but “only for a few hours; after that, she let it happen, eventually emerging coquettishly from the dressing room smiling with delight” (p. 59).
None of this is in the least bit convincing. In fact, the majority of the passages describing the affair between Axler and Pegeen read as little more than fantasies of sexual domination. Axler does suffer from a fleeting moment of doubt about the wisdom of his relationship with Pegeen: “What if he proved to be no more than a brief male intrusion into a lesbian life?” (p.67) he wonders, before quickly dismissing the thought at the sight of his lover’s beautiful and newly feminized hair. Roth’s portrayal of Pegeen’s ex-lover’s sex change operation in terms of mutilation (p. 50) is especially disheartening; both Pegeen and Axler seem to view the operation as a crime against the body and against Pegeen’s lover’s natural gender. Meanwhile, Roth never bothers to delve into Pegeen’s character; her personality and sexuality receive no more development than is necessary to advance the novel’s themes and plot. She seems to exist in The Humbling only because Axler needs someone to talk at and have sex with; she has roughly the same dimensionality as a blow-up doll. And of course this only reinforces the ways in which Roth’s treatment of their affair fails to transcend the level of a heterosexist fantasy.
Of course, it would be an understatement to say that Roth has never excelled at writing women characters. Aside from his vividly memorable depictions of his male protagonists’ mothers, Roth has rarely offered a convincing portrayal of a female character in a novel. Axler, on the other hand, is a protagonist who plays directly to Roth’s greatest strengths: like Zuckerman or Kepesh, he’s equal parts intelligence, neurosis, and drive, and he has a propensity for indulging in hyperarticulate self-reflection. Through Axler’s sometimes-anguished attempts to understand what’s become of his life, Roth finds a vehicle for his inimitable and always compelling narrative voice. He unfolds his plot with an admirable combination of economy and grace, deftly interweaving an argument about the relationship between human motivation and the meaning of death into an engaging storyline, all within in the narrow space of a very short novel.
Fortunately for the reader, Roth has far more of consequence to say about death than he does about gender roles or sexuality. As an actor, Axler has always relied on instinct, but he now finds himself “thinking about everything,” and as a result “everything spontaneous and vital [has been] killed” (p. 2). Whereas in the past he resisted trying to analyze or explain himself as a performer, he now expends tremendous amounts energy attempting to come to some kind of understanding of why he can no longer act. Meanwhile, Pegeen enters his life out of nowhere—and though the strangeness and improbability of her interest in him does occur to him, he rarely pauses from his enjoyment of their affair long enough to ponder her motivations. Part of him understands that his relationship with Pegeen will sooner or later come to an end—but as long as he succeeds in driving this fear out of his mind, he is able to enjoy their time together fully. What Axler cannot so easily accept is the fact that his career and his life are subject to the exact same impermanence and incomprehensibility. He will, of course, decline and die, regardless of whether he ever comes to an understanding of the reasons for any of it.