Bookmarks Issue: 
Philip Roth

A-The HumblingIn his 30th novel, prolific, 76-year-old author Philip Roth continues the exploration of loneliness, loss, and mortality he undertook in Everyman ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2006), Exit Ghost ( 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2008), and Indignation ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2008).

The Story: After a shoddy performance of Macbeth at the Kennedy Center, famous 65-year-old actor Simon Axler decides that he has suddenly, inexplicably "lost his magic." "Instead of the certainty that he was going to be wonderful, he knew he was going to fail. ... His talent was dead." His wife leaves him, and after a brief stay in a mental hospital, he retreats to an isolated farmhouse in upstate New York. There, he contemplates suicide until an unexpected visit from Pegeen, the 40-year-old lesbian daughter of old friends, launches him into an intense, red-hot affair. Revitalized, Simon convinces Pegeen to pick up a stranger for a ménage a trios. Will the affair--and the ménage--end well?
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 160 pages. $22. ISBN: 9780547239699

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"On the one hand, Roth's 30th book deals with themes that his work, especially his recent work, has made familiar. On the other, it's direct and urgent, a taut and controlled fever-dream that demands to be experienced at a single sitting." Richard Rayner

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Roth structures the book tightly and dramatically, in three parts or acts, and draws upon classical drama from Sophocles to Shakespeare to O'Neill for parallels. ... Yet the book's restrained eloquence makes this gloomy, over-determined ending convincing and powerful." Elaine Showalter

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"It's a good, not great, book--an entertaining inquiry into the relationship between sex and creativity, sex and age, and sex and the ego. (See a theme?)" Jeff Giles

USA Today 3 of 5 Stars
"Roth's writing flows gracefully, but the plot suffers from a kind of gender gap: The most vivid characters are men, the aging actor and his loyal agent. The women in the story seem to have been shoved on stage mostly for show, with far less to say that's interesting." Bob Minzesheimer

Boston Globe 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Quite uncharacteristically, Roth advances the question [of the death of creativity] naked, with only the most cursory and contrived situations and characters to try to dress it. ... The Humbled is one of Roth's weakest novels: a promising theme, perhaps, with a ragged fictional covering." Richard Eder

San Francisco Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite all the angst that he explores in Axler and in at least one other character, there's something oddly mechanical about it: promising topics like psychiatric institutions (Axler spends time there) and child abuse seem to be there only to further the story and remain stuck at boilerplate level. It's not only that it's short, more a novella than a fully developed novel, but it lacks depth despite all the sturm und drang packed into it." Martin Rubin

New York Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"The Humbling ... is a slight, disposable work about an aging man's efforts to grapple with time and loss and mortality, and the frustrations of getting old. ... The women in Simon's life are all female caricatures, devoid of any nuance or inner life, and Simon himself--much like the nameless hero of Everyman--turns out to be a generic old guy: a sort of faceless avatar set up as a punching bag for all the indignities an aging man might suffer." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

What happens when a man loses the one thing that defines him as a human being? With nods to Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Shaw, Roth's grim new novel explores this question--with varying success. While the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post praised Roth's elegant writing and caustic wit, other reviewers found the novel superficial and oddly lifeless, citing flat characters, undeveloped plot contrivances, a lack of humor, and a hostile portrayal of homosexuality. Even the graphic sex is "coarse" and "dull," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Though not his best work, The Humbling may appeal to faithful Roth fans; others should pick up one of his earlier novels.