Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth's startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his 60s, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance. His Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya, all his great roles, "are melted into air, into thin air". When he goes on stage he feels like a lunatic and looks like an idiot. His confidence in his powers has drained away; he imagines people laughing at him; he can no longer pretend to be someone else. "Something fundamental has vanished." His wife has gone, his audience has left him, his agent can't persuade him to make a comeback.
Into this shattering account of inexplicable and terrifying self-evacuation bursts a counterplot of unusual erotic desire, a consolation for the bereft life so risky and aberrant that it points not toward comfort and gratification but to a yet darker and more shocking end. In this long day's journey into night, told with Roth's inimitable urgency, bravura, and gravity, all the ways that we persuade ourselves of our solidity, all our life's performances - talent, love, sex, hope, energy, reputation - are stripped off.
Following the dark meditations on mortality and endings in Everyman and Exit Ghost, and the bitterly ironic retrospective on youth and chance in Indignation, Roth has written another in his haunting group of late novels.
An actor loses his magic touch. A mother uncovers a horrific secret. A lover unleashes powerful, hidden desires. Every action has consequences. Every word counts. These are the essential ingredients of The Humbling, a riveting, unflinching novel by Philip Roth, America's greatest living novelist. Many eminent writers Roth's age (76) have long since settled into the role of the polite, genteel elder statesman. Not Roth. His books still sizzle with raw emotions and stark language which possess the power to shock and enthrall listeners. This decade alone, Roth has produced one startling masterpiece after another. The Plot Against America and Everyman stand out in particular. Add The Humbling near the top of this elite list of remarkable books. Written in a commanding, powerful voice, this compact novel revolves around acting legend Simon Axler, who has suddenly lost his ability to act. "instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail," the narrator intones. Axler's mysterious, artistic paralysis leads to the dissolution of his marriage and lands him in a psychiatric hospital. There he meets Sybil Van Buren, a suburban housewife suffering from the effects of accidentally uncovering a disturbing family secret. But soon after leaving the hospital, another woman, Pegeen Stapleford, plays a more prominent role in the daily drama of Axler's life. The grown daughter of Axler's longtime friends, Pegeen ignites dormant desires in Axler and introduces more exotic ones he didn't even know existed inside him producing dramatic consequences in "the last act", Roth writes, as if the novel were a play. That's actually the best way to approach this book, as if it's a classic, three-act play. And the audio version of The Humbling perfectly captures the book's theatrical quality and illustrates the dramatic power of Roth's writing. Listening to the book, Roth's simple, elegant sentences flow seamlessly from one line to the next. And like any great script, it takes a great actor to bring a writer's words to life. Luckily, Dick Hill was chosen to narrate The Humbling, and he delivers an astounding performance. He reads each word with conviction, transforming the people on the page into full-throated, three-dimensional characters. You truly believe the rush of chaotic feelings and emotions Axler and the other characters experience throughout the novel. Hill makes every syllable ring true, like a great, booming stage actor reciting the pitch-perfect dialogue of Chekhov or Shakespeare. ironically, the book revolves around Axler's sudden inability to convincingly portray characters in these same classic works. Fortunately for us, Roth retains the power to tap into his own deep, creative well and magically emerge again and again with another artistic milestone. Ken Ross
“Creating distinctive characters is one of the gratifying gifts in the arsenal of a talented narrator. But more important in the case of a work by a literary giant is capturing the author's unique sensibility. That is what makes Dick Hill such a splendid reader of Roth's novels…As a character, Axler is exasperating and foolish, but in Hill's performance, mesmerizing.” (AudioFile)
“Roth observes much (about age, success and the sexual credit lovers hold one with another) in little space, and the svelte narrative amounts to an unsparing confrontation of self.” (Publisher’s Weekly, starred review)
“his thirtieth book is brief and perfectly so…Using spare prose, he makes the situation only as poignant as it deserves to be…Roth’s voice, long heard and long appreciated, remains profound. (Booklist)
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A Self-Indulgent Roth
Dick Hill destroys The Humbling