By Philip Roth
Coming from this country's most renowned, prolific novelist, the first lines of The Humbling suggest a vulnerable confession of artistic depletion and failure. He'd lost his magic. "The impulse was spent," writes Roth about his latest aged protagonist, Simon Axler, a legendary thespian cut down by a sudden, unexplained self-conscious inability to perform on stage. Estranged from his expressive outlet and career, Axler loses his wife, contemplates suicide, checks into a psych ward and reemerges a shell of his former self, isolated in his upstate New York farm—the embodiment of the creative personality brought devastatingly low.
With his recent work becoming increasingly shorter and bleak, can The Humbling be read as 76-year-old Roth's defeated elegy for his own inventive powers? An upcoming fifth book in as many years would make that seem doubtful, but unlike previous stumped-genius exorcisms like My Life as a Man and The Anatomy Lesson, The Humbling contains no humor, no playful metafiction, nothing that might bolster its author-surrogate through another round of adventures. Only one act of defiance remains: erotic abandon. In typical Rothian fashion, Axler finds a possible restoration of his health, sanity and vocation in an unlikely affair with one Pegeen Mike, a lesbian named after the impetuous barmaid of The Playboy of the Western World.
While the first third of The Humbling exactingly traces the debilitating frustration of an artistic cul-de-sac, the sexual obsession and dependency of the remaining "counterplot" is less convincing. Exploring the ill-fitting roles people play to escape their hollow lives, Roth merely sketches a fragile male psyche without digging to its core, instead relying on blunt symbols of castration anxiety—Pegeen dons a strap-on during their bedroom sessions, possessing the phallus Axler never recovers. Despite his reliably unpretentious and commanding prose, Roth has done this sort of thing better before (The Counterlife, The Dying Animal), and if this most penetrating of authors is going to do it again, he needs to go deeper.