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Book Review: Exit Ghost by Philip Roth

posted on 3 March 2009 | posted in Books

Book Review: Exit Ghost by Philip Roth I'd heard many good things about Philip Roth, so I decided to buy "Exit Ghost" - it's a fairly slim novel so if I hated it I wouldn't be wasting too much of my time. It turned out to be a good read.

It's written in the first person, and the tone is quite candid and confessional. On the first page you learn that the narrator (Nathan Zuckerman) is incontinent from prostate surgery, and of his impending surgery to try and alleviate this condition. In fact we're spared no details on his bladder leaks throughout the book : including diapers and the paranoia of imagining (or realising) urine odour is emanating from his crotch.

Straight away I found the style enjoyable and informative. Zuckerman is very much a likeable character, having holed himself away in a log cabin for over a decade eschewing all forms of human contact other than cursory niceities when doing his weekly shopping. Zuckerman is a writer so I wonder how much Zuckerman is actually Roth himself - the character is also of a similar age (turning 70, Roth only a little older at the time of writing).

Zuckerman takes a rare trip to see his urologist in New York for the surgery. He's not looking forward to what he sees as the crucible of shame, of ten million noses sensing even the faintest of taboo body odours. He intends to stay a short time in New York and get straight back to his isolation. However, the success of the operation gives him a new confidence and he feels the city is suddenly at his disposal and he is "normal" again, and acceptable to the masses.

With this new sense of belonging, he reacts without thinking to a newspaper advert proposing a house-swap - a New York apartment in exchange for somewhere out in the sticks. And so he sees this as a guilt-edged opportunity to remain in New York for a lengthy period, having his log cabin house-sitted in the process. The occupants of the New York apartment agree to the swap. And this is where the story really begins. The occupants are a young couple, and Zuckerman is immediately attracted to the female half, Jamie Logan. Jamie recognises Zuckerman-the-author and is quite amazed that she would be house swapping with an author whose books she has read before.

As with my book reviews, I find it tiresome to go TOO much into the plot. Suffice to say, what I loved about the book is Zuckerman. He has the no-nonsenseness of someone who knows they don't have too many years left to live. There's little out-and-out humour in the book, but a few situational pieces - like Zuckerman being stood up at a restaurant date, realising he'd actually gone to the wrong restaurant, and his date thought she'd been stood up by him (she went to the right one). It's funny because he's never quite sure of his mental faculties, so you're always wondering how reliable the narrator is throughout the book.

Overall, a good read - well recommended.