There’s more to life than avoiding death

Philip Roth’s new novel Everyman explores what happens when we obsess too much about life’s final ‘reality check’.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Books

Everyman, Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

People who work with the elderly sometimes make the point that extending life is not necessarily a good thing. Though I can see what they’re getting at, I sometimes privately think to myself – as I suspect others do too – ‘Yeah, your life might not be worth extending, but mine is….’ Then I read Philip Roth’s new novel, Everyman.

Everyman is a meditation on the reality of death – not the sudden visitor of the sixteenth-century morality play from which the novel takes its name, but a more remote death, which seldom strikes the young and can be put off with a bypass or an angioplasty. Death is no longer a presence but a process, and Roth explores it in excruciating detail.

Unlike the Everyman of the medieval play who declares, ‘O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind’, Roth’s unnamed character – a husband, father and art director with a successful advertising agency – is haunted by thoughts of his own demise as early as his mid-thirties. On a trip to the beach with a future wife, ‘The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die, and the thunder of the sea only yards away – and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water – made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, under-furnished house.’

His fear of death is far worse than his limited childhood experience of it: he witnessed a drowned sailor washing up on the beach and the death of a boy in a bed next to his during a period in hospital. But by the time his parents have died and his own health begins to fail, fear is a sort of malaise that requires all his ingenuity and cunning to diffuse.

But as dreadful as the prospect of death appears to him, the actuality of Everyman’s life becomes progressively far worse as he ages. ‘Now not a year went by when he was not hospitalized. The son of long-lived parents, the brother of a man six years his senior who was seemingly as fit as the day he’d carried the ball for Thomas Jefferson High, he was still only in his sixties when his health began to give way and his body seemed under threat all the time. He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire life’s story.’

We watch as caution creeps into Everyman’s reasoning and leads him to sacrifice the things he loves. Panicked after 9/11 he flees New York City for a retirement community on the Jersey shore where he pines for his daughter in Manhattan. He stops swimming in the sea, the favorite pursuit of his youth. He gives up the hobby of painting he has waited a lifetime to pursue. He is a stranger in his own life, letting his aspirations slip away even as he mourns their passing.

Most poignantly he misses sex. He lusts for the young women running along the boardwalk and even tries (unsuccessfully) to proposition one. He recalls an intensely sexual affair in his fifties with his 19-year-old secretary and his lurid relationship with a Danish model he weds out of embarrassment when it causes the break-up of his second marriage. The loss of his virility and his nerve is unbearable. He is jealous and even bitter about the vitality of his older brother and rails at what he himself has become. ‘My God, he thought. The man I once was! The life that surrounded me! The force that was mine! No otherness to be felt anywhere! Once upon a time I was a full human being.’

It is then that it begins to dawn on us that the specter haunting Everyman isn’t death but the unraveling of his life. ‘It appeared that like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless days through to the end as no more than what he was – the aimless days and the uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and the terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing. This is how it works out, he thought; this is what you could not know.’

Roth never gives an inch, never rationalises or offers any consolation but reality. There is no solace for Everyman except a visit to the graves of his parents. ‘They were just bones, bones in a box, but their bones were his bones, and he stood close to the bones as he could, as though proximity might link him up with them and mitigate the isolation born of losing his future and reconnect him with all that had gone.’

Everyman is not a ‘feel good’ read. The end is not just predictable, it is certain and some may find it bleak, but it does what great fiction should do and shines a light in the darkest of places. Surely, nothing makes us so human as the knowledge of our own mortality, and in that sense Everyman lives up to his name.

And yet, it’s hard not to link Roth’s Everyman with the passing of an era. The transformation of the biographies of his contemporaries into medical histories is eerily reminiscent of the morbid health preoccupations of people half his age. His creeping caution, natural in the elderly, captures the popular embrace of the precautionary principle – the idea that we should keep things safe and steady rather than take risks or live a little. And in Everyman’s determination to put off death, even as his life becomes more painful, we can glimpse the way in which living today has become more about quantity than quality – everyone seems obsessed by longevity, not so much by what you do with your life but how long you can drag it out.

In the end, Everyman masters his dread and draws strength from his boyhood memories of swimming in the limitless swell of the Atlantic surf. ‘Oh the abandon of it, and the smell of the salt water and the scorching sun! Daylight he thought, penetrating everywhere, day after summer day of that daylight blazing off a living sea, an optical treasure so vast and valuable that he could have been peering through the jeweler’s loupe engraved with his father’s initials at the perfect priceless planet itself – at his home, the billion-, the trillion-, the quadrillion-carat planet Earth!’

Roth insists, ‘There is no remaking reality. Just hold your ground and take it as it comes.’ Death is, of course, the ultimate ‘reality check’ but perhaps for us, as for Everyman, the fact of death might ultimately give us the courage to live – and to live fully rather than cautiously.

Everyman by Philip Roth is published by Jonthan Cape in the UK (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Houghton Mifflin in the USA (buy this book from Amazon(USA)).

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