10/07/2011 Comments Off on Book Review
The Humbling by Philip Roth
Suicide is interesting to contemplate, and Philip Roth does a good job exploring the depths of despair that drives a man to take his own life. In The Humbling, Roth paints a picture of a washed-up stage actor named Simon Axler who has apparently lost his magic. He can’t perform anymore; his magic, if he ever had it, is gone, seemingly for good. He is driven to the depths of despair, in part because he attempts rehab at a sanitarium and in part because his identity is in crisis.
While undergoing rehab, he meets a woman who fell apart after witnessing her husband molest their daughter. Axler proves to be a sympathetic listener who takes this woman’s pain upon himself, which in many ways allows him to cope with his depression.
After he “recovers,” he goes back home and withdraws from society. He then meets Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of his friend Asa Stapleford, who he knew from his early days of acting. Pegeen is a lesbian who basically turns straight for Axler. He, in turn, showers her with gifts, attention, and affection. Uncertainty defines their relationship from the beginning, in part because Axler knew Pegeen from when her birth, and also because he is a couple decades older than her. Complicating matters is the fact that Axler still desires to be friends with Asa and his wife Carol.
Eventually, Pegeen breaks off her relationship with Axler. Sadly, this occurs long after she had bgun to escalate their involvement. The break-up feels humiliating to Axler, although it should not have been altogether unexpected. And so, unable to cope with the loss, he climbs into his attic and takes his own life.
Despondency, then, is the major theme of this book. How do we cope when we lose the things dearest to us? Axler lost his ability to perform on the stage, and lost the confidence associated with it. Though he despaired at first, he was eventually able to cope with the lost, in part because he fell in love with Pegeen. But that was never meant to last. He eventually loses Pegeen as well, and that turns out to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back: his life can never be the same. He knows this, and cannot cope with the loss, and so he avoids it altogether.
Roth does a masterful job of pulling the reader into the drama of Axler’s life. It is not the big things that make life so wonderful and exciting. Rather, life (and, I suppose, death) is in the details.
One can also feel the despair Axler feels at losing his skill as an actor. Acting had defined his life to that point, and losing that was like losing his identity. Acting, instead of being enjoyable, has become a chore, something to be endured. That’s no way to live, fearing what you used to love, and Axler knows it. Viscerally, we do as well.
Overall, the book is a quick and enjoyable read, though it can be squeamish and dark at times. Reading it prompts uncomfortable questions, but sometimes it’s best to face the questions that make us uncomfortable. The Humbling is one way to prompt those questions.