Exit Ghost

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Overview


Like Rip Van Winkle returning to his hometown to find that all has changed, Nathan Zuckerman comes back to New York, the city he left eleven years before. Alone on his New England mountain, Zuckerman has been nothing but a writer: no voices, no media, no terrorist threats, no women, no news, no tasks other than his work and the enduring of old age.

Walking the streets like a revenant, he quickly makes three connections that explode his carefully protected solitude. One is with ...

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Exit Ghost

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Overview


Like Rip Van Winkle returning to his hometown to find that all has changed, Nathan Zuckerman comes back to New York, the city he left eleven years before. Alone on his New England mountain, Zuckerman has been nothing but a writer: no voices, no media, no terrorist threats, no women, no news, no tasks other than his work and the enduring of old age.

Walking the streets like a revenant, he quickly makes three connections that explode his carefully protected solitude. One is with a young couple with whom, in a rash moment, he offers to swap homes. They will flee post-9/11 Manhattan for his country refuge, and he will return to city life. But from the time he meets them, Zuckerman also wants to swap his solitude for the erotic challenge of the young woman, Jamie, whose allure draws him back to all that he thought he had left behind: intimacy, the vibrant play of heart and body.

The second connection is with a figure from Zuckerman’s youth, Amy Bellette, companion and muse to Zuckerman’s first literary hero, E. I. Lonoff. The once irresistible Amy is now an old woman depleted by illness, guarding the memory of that grandly austere American writer who showed Nathan the solitary path to a writing vocation.

The third connection is with Lonoff’s would-be biographer, a young literary hound who will do and say nearly anything to get to Lonoff’s “great secret.” Suddenly involved, as he never wanted or intended to be involved again, with love, mourning, desire, and animosity, Zuckerman plays out an interior drama of vivid and poignant possibilities.

Haunted by Roth’s earlier work The Ghost Writer, Exit Ghost is an amazing leap into yet another phase in this great writer’s insatiable commitment to fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Clive James
Exit Ghost is just too fascinating to leave alone…this book is latter-day Roth at his intricately thoughtful best…
—The New York Times Book Review
Michael Dirda
This being Philip Roth, Exit Ghost manages some occasional laughter in the dark…and, again, this being Philip Roth, the novel is sometimes brutally sexual (the description of Jamie's past, whether imagined or actual). Above all, though, the book shows us a man trying to work with the cards that fate has dealt him—and to accommodate himself to the diminution of his mental and physical powers. In this struggle, any of us can see our own destinies, whether we are "no-longers" or "not-yets." As Leon Trotsky, no less, said with simple truth: "Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man."
—The Washington Post
Michiko Kakutani
Mr. Roth has created a melancholy, if occasionally funny, meditation on aging, mortality, loneliness and the losses that come with the passage of time…Compared with Mr. Roth's big postwar trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain), which unfolded into a bold chronicle of American innocence and disillusionment, this volume is definitely a modest undertaking, but it has a sense of heartfelt emotion lacking in Everyman and Dying Animal, and for fans of the Zuckerman books, it provides a poignant coda to Nathan's story, putting a punctuation point to his journey from youthful idealism and passion through midlife confusion and angst toward elderly renunciation.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Philip Roth's 28th book is, it seems, the final novel in the Zuckerman series, which began in 1979 with The Ghostwriter. A 71-year-old Nathan Zuckerman returns to New York after more than a decade in rural New England, ostensibly to see a doctor about a prostate condition that has left him incontinent and probably impotent. But Zuckerman being Zuckerman and Roth being Roth, the plot is much more complicated than it at first appears. Within a few days of arriving in New York, Zuckerman accidentally encounters Amy Bellette, the woman who was once the muse/wife of his beloved idol, writer S.I. Lonoff; he also meets a young novelist and promptly begins fantasizing about the writer's young and beautiful wife. There's also a subplot about a would-be Lonoff biographer, who enrages Zuckerman with his brashness and ambition, two qualities a faithful Roth reader can't help ascribing to the young, sycophantic Zuckerman himself. As usual, Roth's voice is wise and full of rueful wit, but the plot is contrived (the accidental meeting with Amy, for example, is particularly unbelievable) and the tone hovers dangerously close to pathetic. In the Rothian pantheon, this one lives closer to The Dying Animalthan Everyman. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In Roth's ninth installment in the Zuckerman saga, the reclusive author leaves his mountain retreat in the Berkshires to return to New York City for a promising new treatment for incontinence, a lingering reminder of his battle with prostate cancer. Almost immediately, Zuckerman is contacted by Richard Kliman, a brash young journalist who is working on a biography of the long-forgotten writer E.I. Lonoff, one of Zuckerman's mentors and the subject of Roth's first (and best) Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer(1979). Scandalous new details have emerged about Lonoff's sex life, and Kliman wants to break the story. Zuckerman resents Kliman's Zuckerman-like ambition, and argues heatedly that Lonoff's literary work is the only thing that matters. His private life is off limits. Meanwhile, Zuckerman becomes obsessed with a beautiful, wealthy young Texan and imagines an elaborate seduction, which he is simply too old and too sick to put into effect. While not one of Roth's strongest works, this novel has all the elements: unreliable narrators, authorial games, meditations on the use and abuse of literature, and a firm grounding in the reality of post-9/11 New York. Recommended for most fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ6/15/07.]
—Edward B. St. John

From the Publisher

Zuckerman may die. Roth will die. Readers will die. Literature lives on.
Kirkus Reviews

As usual, Roth's voice is wise and full of rueful wit...
Publishers Weekly

...agonizingly real yet gorgeously rendered...
Booklist, ALA, Starred Review

The Barnes & Noble Review
We should have known he would not go gentle into that good night. From the moment Philip Roth emerged in print, almost 40 years ago now, his prose reveled in its coherent vitality. "Unlike those of us who come howling into the world, blind and bare," Saul Bellow wrote at the time, "Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, teeth, speaking coherently. He is skilled, witty, energetic and performs like a virtuoso." How could something so exuberant ever die? But in recent years, as Roth surpassed middle age and then sailed into his 70s, he has begun to see death less as a joke and more like the mandate it is.

From Patrimony to Sabbath's Theater, on to The Dying Animal and now Exit Ghost, the sobering coda to his Nathan Zuckerman series, Roth has begun to explore just what that means for the aging. This project has required a series of complicated leave-takings, of which Exit Ghost is the third and most substantial. After all, Zuckerman has acquired a lot of baggage over the years and there are some knots to be untangled. Roth first introduced him in his elegantly tidy 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer, when Zuckerman was just a middle-aged novelist looking back on the pilgrimage he made in 1956 to the home of his writer hero, E. I. Lonoff. Zuckerman was then "twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman."

Three decades on, that Bildungsroman has indeed become truly massive. It stretches from Zuckerman's brush with fame in The Anatomy Lesson to his confusion over Israel in The Counterlife, on down through Roth's books of the late '90s, for which Zuckerman serves as a kind of mediating consciousness. Exit Ghost puts him back at the center of the tale, even as he has moved to the periphery of his world. Zuckerman, we learn, has spent 11 productive years in New England, eschewing controversy and romance for the sustaining embers of work. He is drawn back New York City for a bladder operation, to which he submits in hopes of "exerting somewhat more control over my urine flow than an infant."

Zuckerman's medical procedure -- and the fact that it has rendered him impotent as well -- sets the sad, blackly comic tone of Exit Ghost. Indeed, though the title of this novel comes from Macbeth, its presiding spirit is King Lear. Zuckerman wanders around New York as if it were his heath, bruised and bewildered, shocked to see how easily life in the city trundles on without him. In ten years, women's skirts have gotten shorter, and everyone has a cellular phone pressed to their ears. "What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say," Zuckerman wonders, "so much so pressing that it couldn't wait to be said?"

But that's just the easy stuff. Over the course of a few short days, Zuckerman has a series of interactions that don't just remind him how long he has been away, but what comes next. The first person Zuckerman thinks to visit is dead. The first acquaintance he runs into is Lonoff's ex-lover, Amy Bellette, who has just emerged from brain surgery, her skull marked by "a raw, well-defined scar that curved from behind her ear up to the edge of her brow." She is a mockery of Zuckerman's lusty memories of her. Later, they meet to talk of old days, and Zuckerman sees her at the foot of her dingy walk-up, "now even more pitiful to behold in a long shapeless lemon-colored dress meant to exude gaiety" but which does quite the opposite.

Rather than flee back north, Zuckerman extends his stay and gets bitten by the New York bug of new beginnings. At a restaurant, in between changing his Depends, he spies an ad in The New York Review of Books for an apartment swap, and he leaps into action. The apartment is occupied by two young writers, Richard and Jamie, a woman so gorgeous the reader knows immediately a whole new mockery of Zuckerman is about to begin. Immediately after he signs on for a year in their apartment, Zuckerman begins to receive phone calls from Kliman, an arrogantly self-assured biographer who wants to resurrect Lonoff's career by breaking a sordid story about the late writer's sexual history. His evidence? Extracts of a novel Lonoff never finished, which suggest an incestuous relationship with his sister. The affront of it all drives Zuckerman into action and back to his desk, where he begins writing a series of dialogues between himself and Jamie, with Kliman playing a minor role.

Though Zuckerman's powers of persuasion have waned, his creator's have aged well. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Zuckerman's playlettes, which Roth splices right into the text without much throat-clearing from Zuckerman and nothing but dialogue to move it forward. Even though we know these conversations are fictional, it's hard not to believe in them, to not care what happens, to not grow anxious by the extramarital tension Zuckerman works up toward -- no surprise -- a slightly pornographic froth. Here is Zuckerman's subtle but powerful rejoinder to Kliman's biographical mode: watch me create something out of nothing. On the page it is true -- and yet in the real world there is no relation to fact whatsoever.

In addition to these bravura dialogues, throughout Exit Ghost there are passages of vintage Roth, narrative paragraphs that stretch across two pages, climbing toward revelations about aging and the literary game which would seem minor were they not so perfectly described. Kliman and Zuckerman's first true argument, which takes place by the Central Park reservoir, is one of the best scenes Roth has written. "Back in the drama," Zuckerman thinks after it concludes, "back into the turmoil of events!... There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness. When was the last time I had felt the excitement of taking someone on?" The argumentative gusto of Roth's fiction has always made his novels, even the best of them, somewhat exhausting to read. One finishes The Counterlife banged and embattled, wrung-out. At the end of Sabbath's Theater, if you haven't shed a tear or two in laughter (and in grief) it's time to check your pulse. Though it possesses some of the same postmodern mirroring and investigates some of the same themes as these books, Exit Ghost is not nearly such a house aflame. Long before the situation with Jamie or Kliman gets out of control, Zuckerman knows well enough to step aside, to slip out the back entrance and back to his desk. This wily, elegant, sobering book reminds us -- all over again -- that is where the true art happens, until it stops. --John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book for Scribner on the tyranny of email.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781428165199
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 6/28/2007
  • Series: Nathan Zuckerman Series
  • Format: CD

Meet the Author

Philip Roth

In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, among others. He has twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ prize for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004" and the W.H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year, making Roth the first writer in the forty-six-year history of the prize to win it twice.

In 2005 Roth became the third living American writer to have his works published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. In 2012 he won Spain’s highest honor, the Prince of Asturias Award, and in 2013 he received France’s highest honor, Commander of the Legion of Honor.

Biography

Philip Roth's long and celebrated career has been something of a thorn in the side of the writer. As it is for so many, fame has been the proverbial double-edged sword, bringing his trenchant tragic-comedies to a wide audience, but also making him a prisoner of expectations and perceptions. Still, since 1959, Roth has forged along, crafting gorgeous variations of the Great American Novel and producing, in addition, an autobiography (The Facts) and a non-fictional account of his father's death (Patrimony: A True Story).

Roth's novels have been oft characterized as "Jewish literature," a stifling distinction that irks Roth to no end. Having grown up in a Jewish household in a lower-middle-class sub-section of Newark, New Jersey, he is incessantly being asked where his seemingly autobiographical characters end and the author begins, another irritant for Roth. He approaches interviewers with an unsettling combination of stoicism, defensiveness, and black wit, qualities that are reflected in his work. For such a high-profile writer, Roth remains enigmatic, seeming to have laid his life out plainly in his writing, but refusing to specify who the real Philip Roth is.

Roth's debut Goodbye, Columbus instantly established him as a significant writer. This National Book Award winner was a curious compendium of a novella that explored class conflict and romantic relationships and five short stories. Here, fully formed in Roth's first outing, was his signature wit, his unflinching insightfulness, and his uncanny ability to satirize his character's situations while also presenting them with humanity. The only missing element of his early work was the outrageousness he would not begin to cultivate until his third full-length novel Portnoy's Complaint -- an unquestionably daring and funny post-sexual revolution comedy that tipped Roth over the line from critically acclaimed writer to literary celebrity.

Even as Roth's personal relationships and his relationship to writing were severely shaken following the success of Portnoy's Complaint, he continued publishing outrageous novels in the vein of his commercial breakthrough. There was Our Gang, a parodic attack on the Nixon administration, and The Breast, a truly bizarre take on Kafka's Metamorphosis, and My Life as a Man, the pivotal novel that introduced Roth's literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.

Zuckerman would soon be the subject of his very own series, which followed the writer's journey from aspiring young artist with lofty goals to a bestselling author, constantly bombarded by idiotic questions, to a man whose most important relationships have all but crumbled in the wake of his success. The Zuckerman Trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Counterlife) directly paralls Roth's career and unfolds with aching poignancy and unforgiving humor.

Zuckerman would later reemerge in another trilogy, although this time he would largely be relegated to the role of narrator. Roth's American Trilogy (I Married a Communist, the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America), shifts the focus to key moments in the history of late-20th –century American history.

In Everyman (2006) , Roth reaches further back into history. Taking its name from a line of 15th-century English allegorical plays, Everyman is classic Roth -- funny, tragic, and above all else, human. It is also yet another in a seemingly unbreakable line of critical favorites, praised by Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and The Library Journal.

In 2007's highly anticipated Exit Ghost, Roth returned Nathan Zuckerman to his native Manhattan for one final adventure, thus bringing to a rueful, satisfying conclusion one of the most acclaimed literary series of our day. While this may (or may not) be Zuckerman's swan song, it seems unlikely that we have seen the last Philip Roth. Long may he roar.

Good To Know

Before publishing his first novel, Roth wrote an episode of the suspenseful TV classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

A film adaptation of American Pastoral is currently in the works. Australian director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence; Patriot Games) is on board to direct.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Philip Milton Roth
    2. Hometown:
      Connecticut
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 19, 1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      Newark, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955

Read an Excerpt

I walked to West 71st Street, startled, at Columbus Circle, to see that the bulky fortress of the Coliseum had metamorphosed into a pair of glass skyscrapers joined at the hip and lined at street level with swanky shops. I wandered into the arcade and out, and when I continued north on Broadway it was not so much that I felt myself in a foreign country but as though some optical trick were being played on me so that things appeared as in the reflection of a funhouse mirror, everything simultaneously familiar and unrecognizable. Not without some hardship, I'd conquered the solitary's way of life, knew its tests and satisfactions, and over time had shaped the scope of my needs to its limitations, long ago abandoning excitement, intimacy, adventure, and antagonisms in favor of quiet, steady, predictable contact with nature and reading and my work. Why invite the unanticipated, why court any more shocks or surprises than those that aging would be sure to deliver without my prompting? Yet I continued up Broadway, past the crowds at Lincoln Center that I did not wish to join, the theater complexes whose movies I had no inclination to see, the leather goods shops and gourmet food shops whose merchandise I didn't care to buy, unwilling to oppose the power of the crazed hope of rejuvenation that was affecting all my actions.
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Philip Roth -- From The Barnes & Noble Review

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost has been announced as the final volume in his series of novels about Nathan Zuckerman. Beginning with The Ghost Writer, which appeared in 1979, the Zuckerman saga now spans nine books (ten if you take The Facts into account, for that autobiography opens with a letter from Roth to Zuckerman and closes with one from Zuckerman to Roth). The other books are Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), The Prague Orgy (1985), The Counterlife (1986; winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), American Pastoral (1997; winner of the Pulitzer Prize), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000; winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award). All told, Roth has devoted three decades, and more than 2,600 pages of prose, to Nathan Zuckerman. I spoke with him by phone on the morning of September 13, 2007, about Exit Ghost and its fictional forebears. What follows is drawn from an edited transcript of that conversation. --James Mustich

JM: Let's start with the way that Exit Ghost invokes, in the figure of Amy Bellette, the muse of The Ghost Writer and takes up directly the theme announced in that first Zuckerman novel, the vocation of an American writer. Do you think Nathan Zuckerman has learned anything about that vocation in the 50 years that have passed between the events described in the two books?

ROTH: [LAUGHS] I hope so. Oh my goodness, sure. The first book begins with him in his early 20s (I think he's not even 25), and the last book concludes with him at age 70-something. So 50 years have gone by, he's lived through many experiences, experiences both as a writer and as a man, met many people, been privy to many stories. He's a keen observer and recorder of the life around him. So he's learned a great deal.

JM: At the outset of The Ghost Writer, Nathan says he is contemplating "my own massive Bildungsroman." It seems a natural step to see Exit Ghost as the conclusion of that putative work, at least for you as the author if not for Zuckerman as a character. What sense of the larger architecture of the saga did you hold in view as you worked on the various parts of what we might call the Zuckerman corpus?

ROTH: Well, the thing grew by itself. I had no overarching plan for it. When I wrote the first book, I didn't know anything was going to come of it. Then the second book came, Zuckerman Unbound, and a third book came, The Anatomy Lesson, and a fourth, The Prague Orgy. Then I stopped for a while. Again, I didn't stop because I was planning something in the future. I had other books to write. I think I've written 28 books, and 9 of them have been Zuckerman books. That means one out of every three books. So for a lot of the time, two-thirds of the time, I was doing other things. So the thing accumulated by itself, without my doing any overseeing.

JM: Exit Ghost turns from the larger political and cultural canvases of the novels in the second trilogy -- American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain -- to a more intimate perspective on Zuckerman's experience. Was that prompted by a desire to go back to the beginning and tie things together?

ROTH: It seemed to me that that was the natural place to end -- to return to Zuckerman as the central actor of the drama. As you note, prior to this, there were the three books in which Zuckerman is not the central actor; he's rather the recording intelligence. But I thought the obligation for me was to end with him, and particularly to take seriously the prostate cancer which he speaks about for the first time in American Pastoral.

JM: The first trilogy, along with The Prague Orgy, has now been issued in a Library of America volume. Soon enough the other books -- The Counterlife and the second trilogy -- will be. Do you wonder how a reader will approach this body of Zuckerman work in the future? Each book certainly stands on its own; but to read each in the shadow -- perhaps in the illumination is a better way to put it -- of the other works is to recognize patient unwindings of meaning within the often headlong energy of the individual plots. I'm wondering if you've thought about that at all.

ROTH: I haven't. Nor have I re-read all the books. Now that you bring this up, I think probably I should have read all of them to see what's going on. But it didn't occur to me. I know them in a vague and general sense. I don't remember them specifically. I suppose if someone read the nine books in succession, they'd have a particular experience, of a kind that I can't name -- but it might be rather intense.

JM: Intense indeed, and quite often exhilarating.

ROTH: You did this?

JM: I did.

ROTH: You read them in order, Exit Ghost last?

JM: I read Exit Ghost as soon as I got the reading copy this spring, and then I went back and read them all through again, and read Exit Ghost a second time.

ROTH: So what's it like?

JM: It is remarkably coherent, down to the level of imagery that recurs, as if you had been working all along with a map through the territory. Some of that no doubt speaks to the recurring thematic concerns of all your works, not just the Zuckerman novels. But from The Ghost Writer through Exit Ghost the sequence is bound by an intricate logic that holds together wonderfully well, with The Counterlife as a kind of glowing gyroscope at the center.

ROTH: I'm glad to hear it. I, for instance, did not re-read The Ghost Writer while I was working on Exit Ghost, because I didn't want it interfering with whatever I wanted to make up at the time. Only when I finished the books did I re-read The Ghost Writer, and then very cursorily, to be sure I got the facts correct, which I did. But I wanted to steer clear of the books so as not to fall under the sway of them.

JM: Reading The Ghost Writer again was delightful. I can remember quite distinctly the experience of first reading it -- I think it ran in its entirety in The New Yorker across a couple of issues -- when I was about the same age Nathan is in the book. Returning to it now was a real pleasure.

ROTH: Good.

JM: But it rhymed with Exit Ghost in so many ways, and the structure is so similar, that it is a revelation to find out you didn't read it again while composing Exit Ghost.

ROTH: No, I didn't.

JM: At the conclusion of Exit Ghost, in the dialogue between Nathan and Jamie Logan, the young woman with whom, if I might use a prim word, he is smitten, Jamie seems to push Nathan toward a recognition that his vocation ultimately demands escape from the instability of life and its unreasonable wishes, however seductive they may be, and a retreat to the sense of proportion that turning sentences around allows. Is it fair to say that Zuckerman fits a description we've read earlier in the book, that he is someone for whom "the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most"?

ROTH: I think it's safe to say that that's true for most writers, not just for Zuckerman.

JM: When I was re-reading the ending of the book last night, Jamie's longish speech on the next-to-last page put something in my head that I hadn't gotten originally. She explains Zuckerman's attraction to her as a consequence of his being, at the moment, "a writer without a book," suggesting that as soon as he finds a literary inspiration, his fascination with her will evaporate. So it made me consider if his flight from her might be driven by inspiration as well as fear.

ROTH: [LAUGHS] I hadn't thought of that. I have the book in front of me. Let me see. No, I don't think so. First of all, that's an imagined scene Zuckerman has written, in which he imagines that he'd flee from her. He flees the first time in reality because she's not going to come to visit him. Now, when he re-imagines it, he has her agreeing to come to visit him, and he flees from that as well. I think he's fleeing from the fact that he's incapable of doing anything to entice Jamie into his life. I didn't think of it as returning to inspiration, but just really fleeing the impulses that got him in this fix in the first place.

JM: When Nathan visits Amy Bellette in her apartment, she shares with him a letter she has written to The New York Times. It begins: "There was a time when intelligent people used literature to think."

ROTH: [CHUCKLES] Yes.

JM: It seems to me that, for you, fiction represents its own realm of apprehension, one that is imaginative rather than objective or subjective, and in some ways truer to our real experience because of that. What Amy puts in her letter -- "serious fiction eludes paraphrase and description -- hence requiring thought" -- might well be something you'd say yourself. How can literature be used to think?

ROTH: For instance, let's go back to, say, the Monica Lewinsky–Bill Clinton moment in our history. I would have expected at some point that people might talk about the novels of John Updike, who has written persuasively and at length about adultery; that they'd say, "As in Updike's novel, such-and-such," in looking for the motivation -- on both sides, hers and his. But instead you get references to movies or to television. So that's a very mundane example of people turning for cultural reference to something other than books. I think that when adults' lives were enlarged by the reading of fiction, they could refer what they read back to life, and now that's just not done. One, the audience itself has dramatically been reduced in size, and two, it's as though people don't even know that they can use fiction to think about their lives.

JM: Do you think that the kind of thinking that fiction provokes is different in kind from that stimulated by movies or TV?

ROTH: I would say that good fiction does provoke something different from movies and TV. When people refer to movies and TV, they talk about "the Meryl Streep character." Right? "Then the Meryl Streep character does this." When you talk about Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, you're talking about somebody who has an identity for you as a complete fictional character. I think just in that choice of words, you get the difference between the impact of the one and the other.

JM: That's a wonderful example. Let me take a leap from screen to stage, as it were: In The Prague Orgy there is a stage direction that you once said in an interview could stand as a title for the original trilogy: "Enter Zuckerman, a serious person."

ROTH: [LAUGHS] I don't remember that.

JM: Do you think he's still a serious person at the close?

ROTH: Oh, he's pretty serious in this book. This book is not strong on lightheartedness. I think there are moments when there's something said that may be humorous. I think that probably Kliman says things that are intentionally or unintentionally humorous. But Zuckerman is quite dogged by seriousness here. So we can say, "Exit Zuckerman, seriously."

JM: Let's talk about that "exit" for a minute. It's obviously another stage direction, one invoking Hamlet. Reading the entire sequence fresh, Nathan Zuckerman, in literary terms, struck me at times as an oddly Hamlet-like character, at war within himself about taking up not only his vocation (as in The Anatomy Lesson) but even his identity (as in The Counterlife), the way Hamlet spends four acts debating whether or not to take up the only role available to him, that of the avenging son. In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman's hesitations are the fulcrum of the book. Did you have Hamlet in mind?

ROTH: Not only was I not conscious in that way, I wasn't even conscious it was Hamlet. I got this title because last summer I was going to see a production of Macbeth, and I decided to re-read the play so as to familiarize myself with it. I probably hadn't read it since graduate school. I came upon the scene where Banquo's ghost appears, and it said, "Enter Ghost." In fact, it appears twice. It has "enter ghost" and "exit ghost" twice. As soon as I saw the words "exit ghost," I realized I had the title for my book. So I forgot completely about Hamlet and drew upon the stage direction in Macbeth. It also appears in a third play. It appears in Julius Caesar, too, when the ghost of Julius Caesar appears to Brutus.

JM: Well, so much for my Hamlet line of questioning! But do you think Zuckerman, like Hamlet, suffers from a sense of "characterological enslavement" (to use a term you once employed in talking about David Tarnopol, the protagonist of My Life as a Man)? Is he stuck in his character no matter the lessons he's learned.

ROTH: When you speak of the lessons, I find my mind simply goes blank. [LAUGHS] Perhaps because the books are all in the past for me. How shall I say I experience it? I experience it as his experience, not as the lessons he draws from his experience. JM: Let's go back to ghost-hunting, then. In The Counterlife, Maria says: "I know now what a ghost is. It is the person you talk to. That's a ghost. Someone who's still so alive that you talk to them and talk to them and never stop." Has Zuckerman been that kind of a ghost for you? There seems to be a kind of ease in the way you inhabit his voice and character -- ease is probably the wrong word, because I know how much work goes into these books. But there seems to be a way in which Zuckerman allows you to speak that you find congenial. ROTH: What you're looking for with a character is someone who will allow maximum freedom of invention and provide maximum scope to your writing. It turns out that I returned to this character over and over again, because he must have given me that freedom and that scope. Even to speak about his illness. In American Pastoral, he reports that he has had prostate cancer and that he's had surgery to remove the cancer and remove the prostate, and the consequences of the surgery are impotence and incontinence. I did that because at the time I was writing that book, or just beginning it, it seemed like every third or fourth friend I had was battling prostate cancer. I guess I was in my early 60s, and these friends are about the same age. I saw and heard what they were suffering through. So I thought, Well, I'll make Zuckerman a member of this generation who has had this plight befall him too. What I gained, however, I didn't know at the moment: the ability to withdraw Zuckerman from a large realm of life. This made him into an observer rather than an actor, and so suddenly I could have him observing Swede Levov in American Pastoral, observing the Ringold brothers in I Married a Communist, observing Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, and observing them as a spectator.

JM: To return to the state of literature, is it your estimation that, like Zuckerman in the last line of Exit Ghost, its cultural centrality is gone for good?

ROTH: Yes, I'm sure. It's gone for good. It still has some impact, to be sure. But I think as the years go by, in the next 10-20-30 years, it will become more cultic, and be read by people in a cultish way, and that the novel won't have much impact at all.

JM: That is a daunting prospect.

ROTH: Do you agree?

JM: I think, intellectually, I agree, but I'd rather continue under the delusion that it won't be the case. [LAUGHS] Having just read these nine books, for instance, which are so vivid with observation and experience, so full of life, it seems like too great a loss to accept just yet.

ROTH: You have the antennae to pick up the stuff that's in the books. I don't know what your background is, or how you were trained, or where you come from, but you obviously still have these antennae. But in most people, especially young people, these antennae have been clipped. They can't pick up the reverberations from the books at all. Then, of course, the time that's given to them to read is so small, because they are pulled in other directions by all the technology.

JM: In The Ghost Writer, the older writer Lonoff describes his vocation to Nathan quite memorably: "I turn sentences around," he says. It's a lovely description. I've noticed in your recent work that your own sentence-turning continues to grow in deftness and power -- the aural resonance of some of the sentences is extraordinary. As when you write, speaking of Amy, "As if all this loss could ever lose its hold." That's not really a question, just unabashed flattery I wanted to share with you.

ROTH: Thank you. I'm grateful for your seeing it.

JM: One last question, if I may.

ROTH: Sure.

JM: In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman reflects upon his current reading, and you describe how he is revisiting the classics he'd read in his youth, and doing so, it seems, in a quite fruitful way. Does that reflect your own reading habits these days?

ROTH: Yes, it does. He's re-reading Conrad, I think. Isn't that right?

JM: Yes.

ROTH: Well, he's re-reading Conrad because I was re-reading Conrad! In the last three years or so I've found myself re-reading books that I thought were wonderful when I first read them in my 20s. And what I discover is that if I first read it in my 20s, I've lost it. I don't have it. I may have the faintest glimmerings of it, but it's as though I hadn't read the book. So I began re-reading Conrad, the summer before last, and it was simply wonderful. Then I also at the time re-read Hemingway, not all of it, but the good stuff (because there's a lot of bad Hemingway, too). But the good stuff is wonderful. It's bracing when you read it -- A Farewell to Arms, for instance, is just simply a wonderful powerhouse of a book. Then I've been reading Turgenev the last three or four months. Now I've stopped to read Denis Johnson's huge, pessimistic book.

JM: The new one? Tree of Smoke?

ROTH: Yes. It's just a big, strange book. He's a big, strange wri

ter. JM: More power to him.

ROTH: Oh, he's one of the best. And when I'm done with Tree of Smoke, I'll turn back to the classics, and continue re-reading them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2007

    My new favorite author.

    After reading the review in USA Today and not inspired by anything else I gave this book a shot. Wow what a treat this was. Philip Roth is an amazing author whom I had not read. The story of Nathan Zuckerman is what I presume to be the last book in the series and is not the ideal place to start. Roths amazing ability to tell his story and make it relative to now, made it an easy read. Nathan Zuckermans story takes you from the Berkshires and his life of total seclusion to New York and his past. This story is a sort of love story that is funny, sad, and infectious. It's a fast read that will make you go back to the bookstore to explore his earlier works. In a time of mostly disposable literature I am excited about the prospect of filling my shelves with a great American author.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2008

    Roth is a must read

    Nathan is in the twilight of things. Against his will he drags himself from hiding and once again enters the world the rest of us live in. Dragged back into society, not by a lust for life, but rather a lust to be continent and not peeing in pools. That said, this is a wonderful book especially for a reader like myself who has skated into middle age and sees only a hole and broken ice in the path ahead. Roth is a magician with words and though this book has an air of sadness, it also a book of endurance, written by a master at the height of his powers. Nathan is as real and as vital as any character in fiction could be. Roth is a genius, an artist.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2007

    Exit Ghost: Perhaps the Passing of Nathan Zuckerman/Philip Roth

    One can only hope that EXIT GHOST is not the final page in the multiple books on the life of Nathan Zuckerman (the thinly disguised author Philip Roth). Though the principal character of nine books since 1979 is now aged 71, leading a reclusive life after the ravages of prostatic carcinoma treatments have left him incontinent and impotent, there is more than a little life in the master storyteller. Philip Roth continues his eloquent writing style in this latest book and still struggles with the enigmas of sexual obsession, distaste for current politics in this country, and the Don Quixote stance against aging and dying. And in doing so he has created a novel with fascinating characters, satisfying plot, propulsive reading style, and much food for thought! Nathan Zuckerman, in this book, has decided to take a chance on a surgical procedure the will cure or at least improve his embarrassing urinary incontinence, one of the many reasons he has moved from New York City to a rural New England hideaway to write in solitude. But upon arrival in New York he meets a beautiful couple (Jamie and Billy), both writers, who are suffering from the after-effects of 911 and upon encountering their literary hero Zuckerman, coerce him into trading houses: Zuckerman will remain in their New York space and the couple will escape to his New England sanctuary. But other factors arise: Zuckerman meets his old friend Amy Bellette, once the lover of Zuckerman's hero writer E.I. Lenoff, and discovers Amy's resistance to allowing a young writer Richard Kliman to finish and publish a manuscript containing a dark secret of Lenoff, a manuscript he never wanted published Zuckerman has limited success in his first incontinence surgery Zuckerman's self imposed sexual exile is awakened in fantasies about the married Jamie, a wondrously written series of imaginary dialogs between the two. All of these complex components are succinctly woven into this 300-page book that doesn't really end, but instead tapers off into an elegy about aging. The story is great reading: the style is pure Roth. 'The end is so immense, it is its own poetry. It requires little rhetoric. Just state it plainly'. 'Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era - take this down'. Reading Roth is an enriching pastime, one to savor and relish. This is not a book to rush - this is a book to treasure, and once read, to reflect...Grady Harp

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2010

    Exit Ghost

    I always wanted to know what happened to the characters in Ghost Writer. Glad Mr. Roth brought the situation to a resolution for me.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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