The Humbling, Philip Roth’s thirtieth novel, is a book, but it isn't a great one. How it fits into the enormous Rothian corpus is a question worth asking, because the novel is resolutely ambiguous and resistant to classification. On the one hand, it is typical of Roth’s work: despair, ageing and sex are the three Big Ideas explored in The Humbling, as they have been for decades in his other, better novels. On the other hand, it’s thoroughly uneven and almost self-parodic in its treatment of these very Big Ideas. In short, the novel, though not Roth’s finest by a long shot, is in its way unique in his oeuvre.
The novel, ostensibly, tells the story of an ageing stage actor who’s lost his touch: he can no longer act, and can therefore no longer be himself, either. It is a nice paradox, and a solid opening to the story. Suicidal and despondent, our protagonist, Simon Axler, checks into a psychiatric hospital for nearly a month. The entirety of this first of three chapters deals with his increasing sense of self-alienation. We know very little about Axler apart from his angst, but the despair is powerfully conveyed across the page, and, although occasionally melodramatic (“You’re either free or you aren’t. You’re either free and it’s genuine, it’s real, it’s alive, or it’s nothing. I’m not free anymore.”) the sentiment is honest. You can imagine anyone feeling the way Axler does. This first chapter is a manifesto of indignation, a reluctant eulogy for talent and vitality that are no more. It may not be Happy Roth, but it is still Roth.
As soon as the second chapter begins, however, the problems do too. In a novel this short, it is difficult to chronicle both a lonely man’s descent into the worst kinds of loneliness and an entire history of a doomed relationship. Roth makes the foolish decision of inserting the character of Pegeen, a lesbian academic, almost haphazardly into the narrative, as Axler’s new lover. As soon as her name is mentioned, it is implied that she is Axler’s girlfriend; and their meeting is then described through analepses. The linearity of the narrative is disrupted in such as way as to annoy the reader, not to impress them. Had the novel been twice as long, Pegeen might have been a compelling character in her own right; a pleasant change from Axler’s self-pitying. The reason it doesn’t work is that just as Pegeen becomes a character in her own right, with her own quirks and presence, Roth indulges in that vulgar habit of his of describing the sexual act in needlessly graphic detail for pages on end, until it becomes difficult to tell what he’s trying to achieve. Is he attempting to show how sexual liberation is the first step towards self-realization? Or is he illustrating the opposite idea, that Axler can’t help but drag his morbid personality even into the most wonderful sex of his life?
Whatever the case, by the end of this three-part novel, it is almost impossible to understand the work as a whole. It tells a simple enough tale of losing one’s innocence and then trying to find it again; the problem is a structural one. The novel feels disjointed and at times incoherent, as though it were struggling to decide what its message is, or whether it even has a message. The first part is all about Simon Axler’s fall from grace; the second is a sort of love story between two unhappy people, whose differences in age and experience baffle others. The third part begins with standard pornographic descriptions of anal sex and other banalities, and doesn’t really grow much more serious as it teeters towards its sentimental conclusion. In other words, whereas the beginning of The Humbling promises a great novel, its ending is what one might call “Roth kitsch”… It falls back on the tired formula Roth has used in better books: a man can be saved by gritty sex with a woman, but she must save herself by breaking his heart in the end.
In a curiously self-reflexive moment, a weeping Axler questions his own actions: “Shouldn’t he have played that line for a laugh instead of delivering it in a fit of anger? Shouldn’t he have been quietly sardonic, as though it were a deliberately needling overstatement rather than his sounding out of his mind? Oh, play it however you like, Axler told himself. Probably you’re playing it for laughs anyway without your even knowing it.” Much the same goes for Roth himself. Couldn’t he have written a brooding, subtle book instead of piling on the cheese? Is he having a laugh at our expense?
The Humbling suffers from its own brevity. It could have been a powerful story about a man’s search for new meaning after the loss of his past self. Instead, it is a little tale about a suicidal actor who can only feel alive when he is falling in love (or killing himself, which amounts to the same thing here). That’s not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable read: the prose is solid as usual, and there are nice touches peppered throughout the story, such as Axler’s realization that it has been years since anyone’s brought him a glass of water from the kitchen. Roth fans should read it, if only as a reminder that one of the great American novelists can produce a stinker. Other readers, those unaccustomed to the best of Roth, will find here in distilled form many Rothian motifs, only without the poetry or the maturity that characterise his more powerful works.