Sunday, October 07, 2007

Janet TAY reviews ... Philip Roth's Everyman (2006)

Lesson on mortality

Review by JANET TAY

With its lucid description of dealing with sickness and death, this tale sounds a cautionary note about living life to the fullest.

By Philip Roth
(Vintage, 192pp)

PHILIP ROTH’S NOVELLA has a title that is obvious enough—a precursor to the story of an ordinary man who could well be any one of us.

It starts with the funeral of the unnamed protagonist, with eulogies delivered by his daughter Nancy and his brother Howie, the two people closest to him during his lifetime. There is grief and even anger present during the funeral, but the event ends with words that seem too few to sum up the life of the protagonist. Hence, the narrative turns to the past, to tell the story of a man who led a life as imperfect as any other, and who gradually experiences the gradual torment of sickness and ageing, the solitary hobble towards impending death.

Dark and contemplative, rather like a bleaker version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol without the second chances, this effort from Roth offers a glimpse into the life of a man who faces the universal fear of death and loneliness.

The reader is told of the protagonist’s first brush with the idea of death and impermanence during his childhood. Perhaps it is this early exposure to mortality, coupled with his ill health later in life, which causes his relationships with women to always be transitory, bereft of something that he can never quite understand.

A stanza from John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ serves as a prelude before the novel begins, likely placed by Roth to indicate the parallels in the emotions between the protagonist and Keats. Keats, after all, faced an existential crisis caused by his fear of death and disease when tuberculosis was a rampant killer in the 19th century and took the lives of many, including, in the end, Keats’.

The protagonist philanders throughout his marriages to three women. Phoebe, his second wife, appears to be the most ideal of the three but even with her virtues the protagonist fails to remain faithful. At the end of every life, a man is inevitably judged and the protagonist is clearly found wanting—various infidelities, neglected sons, neglected brother—and yet he was not wholly a bad person but one who was confused and lost, wanting love but never able to fully acknowledge and appreciate it.

The sum of his life, as the protagonist sees it, is having “been married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.” If he were to write his autobiography, the protagonist thinks, it would be called ‘The Life and Death of a Male Body.’

One might argue that the protagonist wasn’t entirely without happiness or meaning in his life. His brother Howie loves him dearly to the end, as does his daughter Nancy and his second wife Phoebe despite their divorce due to his infidelity.

He succeeds at a job he is good at although he harbours a secret ambition to paint—he was “too much the good boy, and, answering to his parents’ wishes rather than his own, he married, had children, and went into advertising to make a secure living”. Although he finally tries to paint and gives free art classes in his retirement, he finds that it no longer means anything to him.

“Too late!” seems to be the message that runs through the novella, and as the protagonist faces death in the near distance, he tries to make up for his past mistakes by calling friends and family members that he had wronged, the words of his parents ringing in his head: “Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left.”

Everyman is a poignant assemblage of grief and regrets, but also an ode to a life that wasn’t as meaningless as the protagonist himself thinks. One might even regard it as a cautionary tale, a warning to live life to the fullest and to recognise and return the love of family and friends.

I came away from the book with a lucid account in my head of how it feels to deal with sickness, death and a forced reclusion. Roth reminds us that death isn’t romantic at all and the decay of one’s body is a long trudge that one undertakes on the loneliest of journeys.

In the end, one faces mortality and grief in the same way one faces life, with as much stoicism and acceptance that life is just what it is, nothing more, nothing less: “ ‘But there’s no remaking reality,’ he said softly, rubbing her back and stroking her hair and rocking her gently in his arms. ‘Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way.’ ”

Book courtesy of MPH Distributors


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