Roth always disappoints me slightly - his writing is stunning and I know I should like him (in the way I love Auster, Updike, Bellow) but somehow he leaves me a bit cold. This is a book of tremendous ambition starting with the "heroes" funeral where eulogies by his son, daughter, ex wife and ex nurse give us a brief biography and understanding of the man. The rest of the book is the man reviewing his life while the reader (and to a lesser degree himself)are aware of his imminent demise. The obvious meaning of life conclusions are all there, children give true love and purpose, material possesions mean nothing against your health, family and love rather than sex etc etc. Roth doesn't in my view do much with them, just ram them down my throat in a way that I felt was truly depressing. Perhaps the fact this book depressed me is an indication of its power, but I prefer an Anne Tyler to tackle these themes in a way that leaves me thinking but not suicidal!!
Paul Roth's Everyman is a meditation on life, senescence and death. One long unremitting litany of pain and regret, the story begins at the funeral of a successful commercial artist and recounts his life as he grapples with an early health scare and then is constantly reminded of his mortality while simultaneously messing up three marriages, isolating his offspring, and hurting his gentle brother out of spite and jealousy over his good health. Eventually, he finds that he has become the kind of person that he did not want to be. Yes, it lingers on the relentless decay of the human body and on the psychological frame shifts required to cope with ill-health and aging, but this is Philip Roth and the precision and sharpness of his writing turns this short novel into a moving analysis of how the mistakes we make in life can demonstrate the danger of living for the moment. A dark and fatalistic book it is probably best avoided if you are an aging man in poor health.
In this short, intense novel Roth introduces us to his unique interpretation of the medieval morality play with the same name. Instead of having "everyman" being led by Death to confront God's judgement, Roth's nameless protagonist addresses the reader from his freshly dug grave. Is he asking for acceptance for the bad that outweighed the good or merely indulging in justifying his life and actions?
We meet "him" as the subject during the brief funeral ceremony attended by a handful of "friends" and family. His sons stand aside, clearly not overly affected by his death. The reader gets a sketch of the man from his brother's eulogy and the words of his ex-wife and daughter. All three speak of a long-ago past, his youthful self as a brother in their beloved parents' house, of a happy time with his wife or as a young father. That was when life was innocent and wholesome - before death. The mourners have hardly turned away when the story shifts to the recounting the protagonist's life.
While Roth maintains a certain distance by writing in the third person, the following retrospective is very intimate and personal to his character. His meandering mind follows the different stages of his life, lingering with specifics and dialogs on some episodes, while brushing aside others that are deemed less important. In life, Roth's Everyman was certainly not your ordinary guy from down the street: he was a successful advertising director, wealthy and accepted by his peers. Abandoning his Jewish faith early on, he concentrated on the materialistic and hedonistic side of life. His three ex-wives were left primarily over his desire for sexual pursuits. Starting in middle age, heart problems became a concern and death lingered in the background. Still, thanks to modern medicine and his finances, he could afford the increasingly necessary heart procedures that brought him into his seventies. As he reflects on his deteriorating body, his unfulfilling leisure in retirement, his nostalgia for the safety and harmony of his parents' life almost overwhelms him as does his admiration for the man he once was. "The force that was mine! ...Once upon a time I was a full human being." The only person standing by him with care and loving in his old age is his daughter. Why is not clear, given that she suffered as much from the departure of her father as the sons did. They never forgave him for abandoning their mother and their reaction is met on his side by hatred and disrespect.
Roth has created a brilliant portrait of a rather unpleasant character. Does Everyman have much in common with the author? This was my first exposure to his themes and preoccupations. Roth's language economy is exquisite and skill in creating atmosphere and characters is at its best. The novel reads extremely well, despite some of the misgivings one might have with the description of "Everyman". [Friederike Knabe]
Every new Roth work prompts the same questions: how can he possibly maintain the standard which has marked the period dubbed by the Sunday Times his "late flowering"? And, has it continued?
Whatever may be the answer to the first question, those privileged enough to read "Everyman" will have no trouble answering the second in the affirmative. This prodigious literary heavyweight remains on fire, and now he uses the power of his prose to probe the undeniability of death, and, again, proves himself capable of taking the breath away with the sheer reach of his observations, most of which are voiced by his un-named, dying hero.
In the person of his latest fictional creation those returning to Roth will find familiar themes: New Jersey upbringing; an uncomplicated and revered older brother; some (porno)graphic scenes of past sexual adventures and, most strikingly, in the evocation of the lore of the family jewellery business, there is a shade of the colour which the Levov glove factory so memorably gifted "American Pastoral".
It is difficult to complete this triumphant novella and then to maintain quite the same attitude towards the normal daily chores of going to work, raising a family and, well, living, such are the insights offered. In earlier works, his reporting of the marital and extra-marital state and the pains and prizes of parenthood has been so unerring we cannot doubt the truth of those insights much as we might want to try.
This is Roth's "Seize the Day", only better. We know what that novella ushered in for Bellow. Let's hope the same follows soon for Roth
A popular exercise among self-help gurus is to ask their students to imagine themselves attending their own funeral. What would the student like to be said then? Who should attend?
Everyman reminded me of that insightful thought experiment.
Everyman opens at our narrator's funeral. There are some former colleagues from his advertising career, neighbors from the retirement village where he had been living, his daughter, two sons from a first marriage, his older brother and sister-in-law, his second wife (and his daughter's mother) and a former private duty nurse from a prior illness. You'll read his daughter's words which tell you the family's history.
Then, the narrator takes over to relate his life. The primary themes are family connection, taking on adult responsibilities, physical attraction to the opposite sex, life mistakes, physical decline and passing beyond this life. The perspective is that of an elderly man in not very good health, who objects to his health challenges.
The book is remarkably spare for a Philip Roth novel. I liked the contrast to his more elaborate works. This book is about the monologue in one's own head, and you don't need a lot of other material to capture that mind-set. A few incidents, scattered here and there, simply serve to elaborate on the narrator's character and perspective.
But the book transcends its narrator's life to touch on the important life passages and challenges we all have or will face. If you are like me, you'll find yourself re-examining your own life and plans.
As the book jacket points out, the title is intended to refer to an anonymously written fifteenth-century allegorical play themed to the process of summoning the living to death. You can add to your enjoyment of Roth's work if you read (or re-read) that play.
The story also captures the sense of loneliness that many feel who lack the comfort of daily contact with their families and strong religious beliefs about the meaning of life.
To draw you a word picture of this book, Everyman reminded me of an elaborate tombstone that contains numerous references to the deceased . . . from which our imaginations fill in the gaps.
This is another contribution to the wonderful late Roth canon. It is a short novel which is extremely bleak as an old and ailing man (the novel begins with his funeral following surgery) reviews his life and relationships. He has experienced the failed relationships and the (often related)power of the male sexual impulse which are key focuses of Roth's work. A reviewer of the new Dylan album compared the later preoccupations of the singer with those of Roth. Certainly both engage with death and failed relationships but at least Dylan offers the hope of an afterlife which is not available to Roth's central character here. This is a wonderfully written novel ("Old age is not a battle but a massacre.")but not to be read if you or a loved one are about to experience surgery!
Roth's "The Plot Against America" was a brilliant, convincing book, which was my introduction to this writer. "Everyman" sees Roth paring down his content into a very slim novel, which at under 200 pages won't take up too much of your time. The themes - explored through the life and death of one central character - are universal: the ups and downs of a life as lived by any one of us.
What marks the book out is just how much of what it is to be human Roth manages to explore in so few words. There are no wasted words here, no rambling sub-plots or episodes that don't add something to his overall theme. In places, it reminded me of Albert Camus - another writer who could explore life's complexities in brilliant, slim volumes of writing.
"Everyman" deserves much of the praised heaped upon it by critics. It will certainly leave you thinking about things long after the last page.
Everyman is a book about dying in as much as we are all born to die or, as Roth puts it, "we are born to live but we die instead".
The book starts at the graveside as we bury the unnamed protagonist and ends just prior to that point with his death on the operating table. In between is the life of an ordinary man, more successful than some perhaps but nothing so special, who grows up in a loving, hard-working family and therefore has a pretty solid start in life, is subsequently successful at work, is materialistic and takes opportunities that come his way like the usual lies and liberties in his relationships with women and is surprised by their responses when he is found out, believes he will live forever, or at least he will exist for some time yet and he does not contemplate his own dying until his later years, expects the death of his parents but like an ordinary man is grief-stricken when it happens, and cannot understand why everyone else is not the same ordinary man as he is (isn't he?), especially his brother, who is from the same stock but seems to have been blessed with a degree of health that he latterly has not.
He loves his family but screws up his marriages because he cannot resist the offer of sex on a plate from passing fantasies, although he is not completely consumed by sex as Portnoy is. He begins to feel he has had a raw deal as his first of many regular health problems appear at too young an age, so he believes, and it is as these problems become an established factor and he realises that he has fewer and fewer friends and relations who he can call upon for support, that he begins to reflect on just what a mess he has made of his personal life. His early success in work and play no longer counts for anything as it was secured at the expense of any lasting meaning and value in his life. He hasn't been a complete waster but he hasn't been too clever either.
There is a lot of love in this book and Roth's recounting of relationships is exquisite, he uses mundane detail that we all recognise from our day-to-day lives to a singularity of example that absolutely captures the essence of a feeling or situation that is almost crushing in its impact. We cry, occasionally laugh but cannot help but use what Roth shows us to examine our own selves, what we do, how we treat others and what we honestly expect of our lives.