Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: The Humbling, by Philip Roth

If you’ll allow me the pun, any decent critical reception of The Humbling, the most recent novel by three-time PEN/Faulkner-award winning novelist Philip Roth, should be a humbling experience for its author.

The Humbling, which comes out at a very sleek and easily read 140 pages, begins at a pace unusually slow for Roth’s fiction; he begins the narrative immediately in flashback, and the first episode of the book, entitled “Into Thin Air,” chronicles the spontaneous loss of stage actor Simon Axler’s ability to portray the toughest stage roles of his time, in productions of Shakespeare to contemporary plays. Roth possesses in the first 40 pages of this book an opportunity to hook us with the poignant and powerful story of an actor declining despite his best efforts, yet we are treated to several dozen pages of exposition, background, and passive voice.

For forty pages, Simon Axler—and the narrative—lack any agency, of any kind. In the opening pages, Axler’s wife and his talent have both departed him in prose that—even for Philip Roth—is shockingly distanced at odds with the elegant, Jamesian voice that he possessed in his earliest work in Goodbye Columbus. After his wife leaves, Axler considers committing suicide; Roth writes: “Now there was nothing stopping him. Now he could go ahead and do what he’d found himself unable to do while she was still there: walk up the stairs to the attic, load the gun, put the barrel in his mouth, and reach down with his long arms to pull the trigger.”

But the reader lacks an authentic connection to Axler, to his struggle, because so much of this book begins with a mere gloss of Adler’s depression, and the narrative hardly delves deeper than surface perceptions. Roth—whose previous few novels have also had the macabre theme suggesting that little in life matters and, hey, what’s the point because we all die anyway?—has not helped this little book along, especially in his stereotyped treatments of stock manic and depressed characters in a psychiatric hospital and a hackneyed lesbian-turned-straight-turned-lesbian love interest of Axler’s who, by the end of the novel, has wrecked Axler’s home, offended a lover, and turned a previous lover into a man through sex-hormone replacement therapy and surgery.

I hesitate to call this book a “novel”—anything that I can read in less than an hour and twenty minutes is not, most likely, a novel—but it also lacks the depth and emotional catharsis readers generally expect from the form. When Simon Axler—depressed, unable to pull himself from the depths of doldrums, and despondently alone—finally commits suicide in a brief, terse, passage, the moment occurs in the text just as a matter of fact, like the concluding passages of a history. When Simon Axler dies, humbled and broken, his life becomes—like this little book—largely forgettable.

Roth, Philip. The Humbling. Hardcover. Houghton-Mifflin. 140 pp. $22.00.


  1. Awww, now you've given away the ending... I was so looking forward to reading this book! Um, no, not really. I honestly can't stand Philip Roth. I am currently reading "Midnight's Children" which is very bizarre, and I feel like I'm not getting as much out of it as I could because I don't know anything about India's history. Oh well...

  2. I just read it and I really don't like it. This review shows all the feelings I felt while in the reading.