Imagine sitting down with Philip Roth for a conversation about his latest book. Suppose you had the opportunity to ask one of America's greatest living novelists: Why should I read "Everyman", a slender novel about a nameless man who lived an utterly unremarkable life?
To paraphrase Tolstoy—and place his latest protagonist in worthy heroic context—Roth might tell you: All remarkable stories about extraordinary people are alike . . . and they no longer captivate me. But all quiet stories about ordinary people have their own way of unsettling you . . . prepare to be unsettled.
Philip Roth's Everyman does not provide the latest chapter in the decades-long story of Nathan Zuckerman, the fictional persona who's become larger than life. Everyman does not feature David Kepesh, or Philip Roth, or any other legendary life recurring in Roth's oeuvre. Nor does Everyman present the outsized personalities that have given Roth's signature its flourish—no Mickey Sabbath from Sabbath's Theater, no Alexander Portnoy.
Perhaps, to keep his writing fresh, Roth aims to render characters memorable for standing in the starkest possible contrast to outsized personalities. In Everyman, each supporting cast member has been pared down to singular names: daughter Nancy, for instance, or ex-wife Phoebe or brother Howie. And the hero is never given any name at all. Perhaps Roth's strategy, in never bothering to name him, is to make him the most memorable Roth hero ever . . . by rendering him utterly forgettable.
This is quite the trick Roth tries to pull off. On the very first page, the family is burying Roth's eponymous hero. (The inciting incident of a man's life is his death?!) While others eulogize the man, seemingly giving readers a context for him, a greater context materializes for the supporting cast. There's an affectionate brother, a dutiful daughter, two diffident sons, an ex-wife with enough happy memories of her past marriage to attend the gathering. They'll emerge as surprisingly strong, vibrantly-rendered characters through extended flashbacks about the hero.
Then there's the hero's story, told simply and somberly through an extensive history of his illnesses.
In Roth's hands, illness and demise are amazingly fertile contexts to characterize a man. See him as a young boy in the hospital, dreading his groin surgery: struggling with expectations of stoicism, certain his young roommate is dying before weeping parents' eyes. Behold the man in his mid-30s, impatient for doctors to discharge him from the hospital, filled with the hubris that leads him to think oblivion is a fleeting and distant death—when actually, as a series of heart failures, oblivion is a slow unstoppable force that started years before.
Likely you wince just contemplating illness and demise. You probably fear excruciating disease, humiliation, and an endless series of indignities. Love and lust show Roth's hero at his worst: a young Jewish husband shunning his first wife for a shikse, who bears his first daughter and then is jilted for his European model third wife. With this as the skeleton, the love story seems to be borne of meager bones indeed.
Strangely, there is a dignity to the struggles of Roth's everyman.
We see this man with other women with whom he never couples—an old, dying student of his geriatric art class; a ravishing young jogger half his age espied on the boardwalk—and, for brief moments, he redeems himself. The hero's scenes with these two women are among the most aching, moving love scenes Roth has ever rendered. With brief snippets of dialogue (or rambling weepings about aging and dying) and very little physical interaction, Roth lays bare the man's intense hunger and loneliness. The hero shows the older woman a nurturing soul we never see him show his children. And his flirtatious gambits with the young jogger demonstrate a risk-taking playfulness. These memories leave an impact on you; they're refreshingly breath-taking in contrast to endless cycles of the hero's coronary incidents and temporary recoveries.
Any reader can easily grasp how well this man stands up as an everyman. He is a Jew and an atheist. A Madison Avenue hack, a creative type, a robot, and an animal. He yearns for others but cares for no one. None of this is remarkable or extraordinary, and so the reader as easily grasps how this man's life and times are marred by oblivion. It is not to ruin the novel to tell you that the man's life is oblivion: he has no name; he produces no work or art of consequence; his children's lives amount to no less isolation and loneliness than his own. Through his story, our recent history also darkens. Seeking out his father's gravesite in an old Jewish cemetery, he uncovers scores of graves marking influenza deaths from the epidemic of 1918, "only one of the terrible years among the plethora of corpse-strewn anni horribles that will blacken the memory of the twentieth century forever" (54). His early childhood memories are typical of Jewish-Americans raised immediately after the European Holocaust. And the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, sends everyman packing up his New York City home to head to the Jersey beaches—presumably to enjoy his last few years, then die.
Why read a novel about a no-name nobody who starts the story dead? Why invest the time to discover a life lived by slowly dying?
This man's story is an invitation to join the human race as imagined by the greatest living American novelist. To discover an economy of life found by contentment and simple pleasures, read about a man who "[a]lways had been invigorated by stability, never by stasis." He is not overreaching or overly ambitious; thus his humility is familiar and reassuring. His existential horror, horrible as it is, affords anyone the opportunity for survival and even happiness. Roth finds the solution through the toils of everyman: "The worst of being unbearably alone was that you had to bear it—either that or you were sunk. You had to work hard to prevent your mind from sabotaging you by its looking hungrily back at the superabundant past" (102).
Without an aging Philip Roth's insight into the human condition, almost any novelist could portray the agony of enfeeblement and death. But for what purpose? Why read it? Apart from books of fantasy—or magical realism, or any other stories of extraordinary people of remarkable consequences—all life stories inevitably cover the grey, arid terrain of Philip Roth's Everyman. Not all books, however, are as haunting . . . or invaluably instructive.