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In Roth's Newest, Exit The Actor, Sans Everything

If you define yourself through your work, what happens when you can no longer do it anymore? Philip Roth considers this question in his new novel, The Humbling, which blooms brightly in the extraordinarily fecund garden of his late work. Following his remarkable series of short novels — Everyman, Exit Ghost and Indignation — Roth offers another meditation on mortality and the frightening prospect of the diminutions and humiliations of old age.

The Humbling is a swift but piercing, uncluttered but nuanced morality tale about a once powerful stage actor named Simon Axler who, in his mid-60s, loses his magical gift — his talent for acting — and therefore his very sense of himself and his sense of control over his life. Clearly, nothing of the sort has happened to Roth, but he describes the phenomenon in excruciating, almost loving detail, exploring it the way a tongue obsessively explores a newly chipped tooth.

And it's a terrible, unnerving prospect. Axler falls apart in a "colossal" breakdown, made worse by his feeling that, despite his pain, he's still playing a role. He explains miserably to his agent, "I can't act onstage and I can't find a plot for myself to live offstage."

Axler's deeper problem — which Roth doesn't address directly — seems not so much a loss of self-defining talent but, like many of Roth's quasi-misanthropic recluses totally absorbed in their work, a lack of supportive, loving relationships. After his wife, a washed-up ballet dancer, decamps in horror from their isolated New York farmhouse, he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital, where the topic du jour every day is suicide.

The Humbling takes a classic Rothian turn when Pegeen, the 40-year-old lesbian daughter of old actor friends, walks into Axler's life with "the invulnerable air of a happy person." Like David Kepesh in The Dying Animal, Axler is rejuvenated, for a time, by increasingly experimental sexual exploits with his much younger lover, which are vividly described. Roth can't seem to resist May-December relationships (more like July-December, in this case), and the associated themes of eros, death and jealousy. But thankfully, he is after something different here: questions of identity and role playing, sexual and otherwise.

Pygmalion-like, Axler quickly sets out to transform his lesbian lover, "helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want." He feminizes her with expensive finery, even as he recognizes the creepy implications and risks of his actions. Part of him knows he's stepped into a trap, taking "the bait like the stupidest captive on earth."

Roth sets forth Axler's dilemma as an either/or proposition between two poles: a new lease on life with Pegeen versus no life at all. His tragic hero's theatrical background gives him access to an impressive rundown of plays in which characters commit suicide — from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler to Chekhov's Ivanov — which helps inspire Axler's astonishing final performance. As for Roth's performance, The Humbling is another unflinching, sobering look at the pull between seizing and ceding control.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.