Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Review: Everyman, Philip Roth

If you happen to read, as I have, a review of Everyman that employs the adjective “autumnal” to describe the book’s predominant tone, then I suggest that you ought to, as I have, track down the reviewer responsible and beat him or her with a big stick. Beginning with the death and burial of its unnamed protagonist, then journeying back in time to investigate a life spent in frequent contact with death, Everyman is not so much autumnal as it is unremittingly funereal. Even the physical book itself comes dressed for mourning, and the author photograph is eerily posthumous-looking, although I suppose it could just be bad lighting. Whatever, Everyman is Roth’s book of the dead, and as he makes abundantly clear, that category includes everyone – everyman, if you’ll excuse the gendered noun, or even if you won’t.

I read Everyman in a single three-hour sitting. It is not very long (182 pages with enough white space in the margins to contain another novella – I’ve started transcribing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into my copy), and it is oddly compulsive, despite the subject matter. Having witnessed the protagonist’s funeral and been informed of the manner of his death, the traditional character interest then lies in finding out all the ways he’d managed not to die beforehand. These are several, but no more, perhaps less, than most of us face before our big day finally arrives. But death lurks not just for the the everyman himself, but everybody around him. Its spectre haunts every moment of existence, whether one is conscious of it or not.

This seems to be Roth’s point: that by the time one is old enough to realise one will die, it is too long to change the habit of a lifetime and actually believe that at some point one will simply cease to exist. As Montaigne said (although he said it in French, and probably ripped it off somebody else), “We must start providing for it earlier.” But few of us do, particularly in the industrialised West where one has more chance of temporarily cheating death than in any other place or time in human history. A heart condition that may have felled a man in 1870 – or 1970! - is overcome with day surgery in 2006. You can keep death, and more important the thought of death, at bay – until you can’t, and then your world turns to shit, as it does for Roth’s everyman.

None of this is startling news, but it’s the kind of thing that, once you start thinking about, tends to pull the universe out from beneath you. You begin to understand the persistent popularity of religion. It’s not just the fancy hats and fun sectarian conflict, it’s also about consolation. Roth’s protagonist is a staunch atheist to the end. It’s an admirable intellectual position, and one I share (hence its admirableness), but man it feels cold sometimes without eternity over the horizon.

As literature, Everyman is an interesting work by an increasingly interesting writer. (The fact that he started off pretty damn interesting indicates just how interesting he’s become.) The prose is terse and plain, and there is little humour, although the protagonist does finger his girlfriend in the back of a taxi, just to remind you who it is you’re reading. I suppose Roth could be charged with undermining his project by imbuing his protagonist with too much individuality; he has less in common with “everyman” than with various of Roth’s other leading men. I’m not sure this criticism is valid. If the everyman were merely a walking symbol, then although its meaning would not change, Everyman would be limp and (hoho) lifeless. Instead, the everyman is delineated just enough to provoke both sympathy and empathy. Reading the scene where he buries his father, my guts ached, for him, for myself, and for everybody (although mostly for myself). Burying and being buried: this, on some level, is what life is. As Montaigne said, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” (Seriously. It’s towards the end of his little-known essay, “On the vanity of certain surf guitarists”.)

UPDATE (11/5): Roth discusses Everyman here. Link via Pinky's Paperhaus.

1 comment:

Zoe said...

Tops. I shall rush out and get Dad a copy for his approaching 70th birthday.