Philip Roth’s new book (“Everyman”) begins at the end -- with the funeral of the main character -- and moves backward in time, until it circles back and reaches the character’s death again at the end of the book.
In the opening scene, in a rundown Jewish cemetery established by his grandfather, the people attending the funeral are his daughter Nancy, his former wife Phoebe, his brother Howie, his two estranged sons Randy and Lonny, and some friends and colleagues. Nancy, Phoebe, Randy and Lonny speak briefly. Howie speaks at greater length, recalling working as children in their father’s jewelry store. And the brief scene ends:
That was the end. No special point had been made. Did they all say what they had to say? No, they didn’t, and of course they did. Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his, routine, ordinary, and except for the thirty wayward seconds furnished by the sons -- and Howie’s resurrecting with such painstaking precision the world as it innocently existed before the invention of death, life perpetual in their fathercreated Eden, a paradise just fifteen feet wide by forty feet deep disguised as an old-style jewelry store -- no more or less interesting than any of the others. But then it’s the commonness that’s most wrenching, the registering once more of the fact of death that overwhelms everything.
It is a recitation of resignation -- the funeral as a common repetitive experience (hundreds that day), a ceremony where “no special point” was made, a “routine, ordinary” event, “no more or less interesting” than all the others -- its very “commonness” its most distinctive and disheartening feature.
But literally in the midst of this -- between the dashes -- is something remarkable: his brother “resurrecting” their “fathercreated
It is a literary clue that the novel may indicate that the “fact of death” does not actually “overwhelm everything” -- that the myriad of “facts” that make up a life will remain, resurrected by memory, in a story told backwards.
The novel recounts the repeated illnesses and operations as his life approaches its end, his repeated mistakes and marital failures, with repeated references to a stoic view of life:
“But there was nothing to be done. No fight to put up. You take it and endure it. Just give yourself over to it for as long as it lasts.”
“Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way.”
“Muscle through. Barrel through.”
The stoicism extends not just to his physical health, but to his moral life as well. Angry at his angry sons for their anger at his leaving the family long ago for another woman, he releases a Lear-like rant:
“You wicked bastards! You sulky fuckers! You condemning little shits! Would everything be different, he asked himself, if I’d been different and done things differently? Would it all be less lonely than it is now? Of course it would! But this is what I did! I am seventy-one. This is the man I have made. This is what I did to get here, and there’s nothing more to be said.”
But as the book winds towards its end, there is a subtle shift in perspective, something more to be said, captured in a dream about a friend who committed suicide. He wonders what she thought as she died:
Was she resigned and thoughtful, he wondered, courageous about everything she was leaving behind, perhaps smiling while she wept and remembered all the delights, all that had ever excited her and pleased her, her mind filled with hundreds of ordinary moments that meant little at the time but now seemed to been especially intended to flood her days with commonplace bliss? Or had she lost interest in what she was leaving behind? Did she show no fear, thinking only, At last the pain is over, the pain is finally gone, and now I have merely to sleep to depart this amazing thing?
At the moment of death, the “hundreds of ordinary moments” now seemed “especially intended” to “flood” her days with “commonplace bliss.” The words take the reader back to the beginning funeral, with its “commonness” and its “ordinary” ritual, occurring hundreds of times, but with transcendent imagery hidden within the sentences (“especially intended” -- “this amazing thing” -- this “life perpetual”), in both instances brought back (resurrected) by memory.
The dream ends as he thinks about his 30-something daughter, who calls him at his residential retirement village every morning, before she leaves for work:
I must, I must, he thought, my six stents tell me I must one day soon fearlessly say goodbye. But leaving
-- I can’t do it! The things that could happen to her on the way to school! His daughter left behind with no more of him for protection than their biological bond! And he bereft for eternity of her morning phone calls! He saw himself racing in every direction at once through downtown Elizabeth’s main intersection -- the unsuccessful father, the envious brother, the duplicitous husband, the helpless son -- and only blocks from his family’s jewelry store crying out for the cast of kin on whom he could not gain no matter how hard he pursued them. “Momma, Poppa, Howie, Phoebe, Nancy, Randy, Lonny – if only I’d known how to do it! Can’t you hear me? I’m leaving! It’s over and I’m leaving you all behind!” And those vanishing as fast from him as he from them turned just their heads to cry out in turn, and all too meaningfully, “Too late!” Nancy
In the penultimate scene, he finds himself in his grandfather’s cemetery, near his father’s grave, talking to a gravedigger, in a scene that recalls the penultimate scene of Hamlet. The grave digger has been there 34 years (Hamlet’s was there for 30); the gravediggers show Hamlet and him the graves of others and describe the people they had once been. And in a paragraph that uses the word “bones” no less than nine times (could the allusion to Ezekiel 37 be any clearer?), he stands before his parents’ graves:
Once he was with those bones he could not leave them, couldn’t not talk to them, couldn’t but listen to them when they spoke. Between him and those bones there was a great deal going on, far more than now transpired between him and those still clad in their flesh. The flesh melts away but the bones endure. The bones were the only solace there was to one who put no stock in an afterlife and knew without a doubt that God was a fiction and this was the only life he’d have. . . .
He did not feel as though he were playing at something. He did not feel as though he were trying to make something come true. This was what was true, this intensity of connection with those bones.
He has a conversation with the bones. It is as if someone has caused breath to enter into them and brought them alive. The words they speak are the
Several days (and another chapter) later, in a paragraph that begins with “The words spoken by the bones made him feel buoyant and indestructible,” he dies, in a two-word sentence that makes it clear that death is only a fact.
This is a novel that sneaks up on you -- by turns wistful and philosophical, sometimes funny, with Rothian rage and wit, beautifully structured, with an ending with multiple possible meanings. For those still writing the stories of their lives, making up their facts, there is a lot to think about. I am looking forward to reading it again, and thinking about it some more.