Philip Roth, The Humbling, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 140 pp, $22.00 In The Humbling, Philip Roth has created a three-act tragedy for famed stage actor Simon Axler, now in his mid-sixties. In act one, “Into Thin Air,” Axler mysteriously loses his ability to act, his wife leaves him to his misery, and he finally checks himself into a psychiatric clinic. In act two, “The Transformation,” in his seclusion in rural NY, he begins an affair with Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the forty-year-old daughter of old acting friends. Pegeen has been a lesbian since college, and the affair with Axler, which occurs after her lover had decided, with no input from Pegeen, to undergo an operation to become a man, surprises them both. Finally, in act three, “The Last Act,” Axler must cope with Pegeen’s termination of the affair, an event he had more or less expected but which he had convinced himself wouldn’t occur.
Laid out thus schematically, it’s easy to see the trajectory of the novel, but it takes a bit more delving to see what’s at stake in such a tale. Roth brings to the story a serious and powerful grasp of final things that has driven his other recent short, emphatically focused novels Everyman (2006) and Exit Ghost (2007); all evoke the rueful feeling of aging and of no longer being able to take for granted one’s gifts and one’s ability to fulfill one’s desires. An actor unable to act makes the predicament of age become not only an artistic problem, but allows Roth to push at the basis of social interaction. For the idea of self that keeps us coherent is a role, or a series of roles, we have learned to play.
The notion that how we play our social and sexual roles is amenable to change, and that we can create all sorts of new frissons by opting for other possibilities, is the theme signaled by Pegeen Mike’s sudden change of sexuality. In exploring “the transformation,” Roth, whose fiction is firmly planted in the contested realms of sexual politics, has fun with the notion that gender is a role, and that a lesbian, as a phallic woman, creates new sexual possibilities with other women and with men, if she so chooses. The fluidity of desire becomes very heady for Axler, but also, because of his vulnerability in losing his metier, emotionally dangerous.
But Roth is enough of an ironist to avoid the simple reading of Axler as castrated male (loss of acting ability) who finds recovered potency as clinging, aging “sugar daddy” to a woman-loving love object who allows herself briefly to become his “make-over,” from tomboy to Prada-wearing femme fatale, only to abandon him. It’s not that that reading isn’t present, it’s just that it’s too apparent to the characters themselves.
What is more telling is that the break-up occurs after Axler helps fulfill Pegeen’s fantasy of a threesome with Axler and another girl, Tracy, a drunken pickup. Axler gets to witness Pegeen wield a strap-on dildo to fuck Tracy, and become “a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal.” The scene takes place to underscore that Axler, formerly the hero in the world of sexuality, is no longer “the god Pan,” and that that role has been taken, in our time, by the polymorphously perverse women of the world. As an ironist who sees that the surest way to misery is to let a man get what he wants, Roth makes Pegeen’s sexual virility a blow to Axler rather than a turn-on.
For Axler there is no irony in his situation with Pegeen, even though he knew she was playing against type from the beginning. But for Roth, who sees that, for men of Axler’s generation, losing the comforting roles constitutes the loss of their magical selfhood, the irony is that Axler ends up where he started. Pegeen, as the new god Pan, giveth and taketh away -- and who would base his well-being on such fleeting transformations is, as they say, in for a world of pain.
But Axler was already in a world of pain, contemplating suicide, due to the loss of his gift. The transformation of Pegeen he engineered merely lets him play at being a director, casting her as the object of desire he most needs. The fact that she involves her parents in her life when she begins her affair with him indicates the extent to which Pegeen really isn’t playing the character Axler has cast her as, but is in fact playing with some oedipal urges of her own. All of this is plain to him, as Roth’s narrator, wonderfully attuned to Axler’s inner voice, makes clear. And yet Axler persists. If only to forestall death with one last manifestation of the pleasure principle.
In this, his thirtieth book, Roth, whose first book was published fifty years ago this year, demonstrates again his astonishing ability to delineate the prickly realities of desire. Few authors come close to his ability to chart evenly, with comic touches and gripping pathos, the ups and downs of women’s effect upon men. If that means his women are primarily occasions for male reflection, and that his fiction is generally a one-sided dissection of libido, it’s still true that nobody does it better.