The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes, 2011, 150p.
I have returned to full-time work after some time off, and my brain is a bit saggy when it comes to reading. I was reading a longer book, and the edition I had was a mass market paperback from the 1970s. The typesetting was tight and the font was flabby, and the story itself (which I will finish, I swear, etc.) centres around an incestuously connected rural community. The claustrophobia was overwhelming. I picked up The Sense of an Ending, and it was just the perfect solace.

Closer to a novella than a novel, and set openly in a calming, slender Bembo1, I felt comfortable here. Beyond the material aspects of the book, the story itself has a polar opposition to the tight knit rural aspect of the other2: The main characters have lives that touch and diverge, lives that interact in profound ways, but do not press up against each other.

Tony Webster is a middle-age man, retired from a career of little consequence. He has a wife and a daughter in his past, both also marginally in the present. An unexpected and inexplicable inheritance sets off a chain of memory and re-figuring his history.

The first section of the novel is his recollection of his friendship with Adrian Finn, an anomaly who joined his school clique. Adrian is extremely smart and much more self-possessed than the rest of the group. Webster's memory is unreliable and reconfigured, the ordering and timing of events from forty years previous is naturally gone. He remembers as we remember: incidents, particularly ones we revisit (and perhaps reauthor). Any sense of narrative can only be retrospective. The feelings of such replayed memories play rebalancing games, I think.

There are the original perceptions from the time remembered, but with a younger mind, perceived with a blunt tool. Reversing the perceptions back into a reality with an adult mind (more mellowed and circumspect) produces distortions.

"...as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been."

What happens then when we stumble upon artifacts and consequences from these times? When looking at an old photo, or reading an old letter, some shard of the reality is available for present day interrogation. The context is lost and distorted, and reconciling is jarring. Surely we can know something about our own past, but how much seems impossible to say.

When Webster receives an unexpected letter from a solicitor, he begins a process of discovery. What had he really done? What were the consequences? How much could he ever learn about his own past? This is the sort of discovery we might all make, and that occasionally we crave. What became of an old friend? What were the consequences of the way I ended things with her?

The world Tony seems to have created (but only now partially enters) is frankly a bit fantastic. His old girlfriend Veronica is extreme, Adrian Finn's actions were doubly or triply extreme, and so on. Barnes is mysterious with the plot: Webster clearly only deserves to know part of the story, and the author doesn't want to make the "truth" any more accessible to the reader. I wish Barnes had left the gaps in the motivations and sequences of the actions, rather than making the actions themselves so fantastical. Certainly it makes the truth inaccessible, but in a much less satisfying way. One of the many ideas here is that we don't live in our own wakes, consequences radiate off us and our awareness and understanding of them is necessarily incomplete. But here Tony simply appears to connect and incite unbalanced people.

This novella won the 2011 Man Booker, and I find it hard to be too critical. Indeed it is fluidly and engagingly written. There are ideas here that grab the reader and distract from the paucity of depth and breadth; the ideas presented are baldly and sometime repetitively accessible. Nothing makes the reader work hard, but the mysteries of character create an illusion of narrative depth. This mystery also seems to imply complexity in the secondary characters without having to invest much time on them. Tony is a bit of a vacuum of a character, but fortunately the story and ideas require that. When I was finished, I wasn't sure whether this was excellence of craft or some form of cheating, or perhaps something more like a shortcut executed by an craftsman. Does he take us where we want to go efficiently, or are we only going on a trip of a couple of blocks?

Thin, elegant, spare, immediate, unflabby and accessible. I was sucked in by the Bembo, and the text delivered on its promise. A promise of a literary experience in 10 easy steps, with a cola's balance of cold refreshment and warm nutty depth of flavour. This work captivated me and provided precisely what I was looking for, and I was burping away on the ideas joyfully for quite a while. Is it a great book? It shouldn't be required to be great, but perhaps winning Man Booker sets the expectations a tad too high.

  1. I am not an intense type geek, but I often will look for a note on the title verso about the typesetting. Bembo is one I always enjoy seeing.
  2. The other book is John Nichols' The Milagro Beanfield War.


An April Shroud by Reginald Hill

An April Shroud
Reginald Hill, 1975, 256p.
Series: Dalziel & Pascoe #4
A couple of years ago, I was having a terrible time reading fiction. My mind was constantly flooded with thoughts about my job and other aspects of my life, and my brain seemed incapable of engaging with the sorts of books I really wanted to read. I wanted to read literary fiction with evocative language and challenging ideas, and I would exhaust myself in a few pages and find the words simply flowing past me, and my brain crunching on the details of my day.

The solution was series detective fiction, and the series was P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh novels. These books were full of small evocative language and small challenging ideas, cushioned with comfort and familiarity. The hero becomes familiar, the landscape becomes familiar, and the form of the story is familiar. They were indulgences without being indulgent, guilty pleasures without shame. Whenever I got discouraged with some more adventurous reading, the next Dalgliesh book could be summoned from the library and a joyful reprieve was at hand. Until, naturally, I ran out. There are only fourteen Dalgliesh books and my discipline with such things is poor.

There are 24 Dalziel & Pascoe books, and no more are forthcoming1, but this is my new go-to series for an invigorating indulgence. And this February required such an indulgence.

Ruling Passion, the previous novel in the series2, was mostly a showcase for Pascoe. Dalziel played a significant role, but we got very little internal view into him. An April Shroud opens at Pascoe and Ellie's wedding, with a precarious wedding toast from Dalziel. Pascoe heads off on honeymoon, and Dalziel conspicuously takes the opportunity for a holiday. He has lost his enthusiasm, and there is a hint of dismay at Pascoe's coupling. The April shroud here (from Keats3) is the melancholy that has fallen over Dalziel — and if you don't picture melancholy as something that Dalziel would entertain, you are in agreement with Dalziel.

The shroud is also the rain and flooding that immediately descends on Dalziel's holiday. After a very odd aquatic funeral procession, he finds himself stranded at the crumbling manor house of the Fieldings. Naturally, the circumstances of the death are questionable, and we feel confident that there will be additional bodies to follow in time. At least Hill inverts the Jessica Fletcher syndrome in this novel (as in the last) — the initial crime happens before the sleuth arrives, not after. More comedic and light than Ruling Passion, we have a dozen or so characters bouncing around to little particular end in this manor house. Too many, really, and Hill can't dedicate enough space to make even half of them interesting enough. In an on-duty mystery, the duo could knock on a door and question an old lady for a scene and we don't require a lot of commitment to the character. But in a bottle mystery like this, that old lady would hang around in the background, conspicuously uninvolved. Not that there are many old ladies in this bottle, but there are certainly two incidental sisters too many.

The Fieldings are an eccentric family, with eccentric hangers on. Some of it holds together reasonably well. The deceased's father is an aging famous poet, paranoid, irritable and tormented by the lack of opportunities his age affords him. An anarchist film-maker friend of the older son, is essentially squatting at the manor with his sister (yes, an incidental one.) But the matriarch of the family feels an oddly false fresh widow, and is an unlikely romantic leading woman to Dalziel's stupendously unlikely romantic leading man. To his credit, Dalziel finds the situation improbable too, and the potential that she is manipulating him hangs in the air.

That no one particularly seems upset by the initial death, nor the inevitable deaths that follow is remarked on but never explained. Embezzlement, theft, fraud, murder, pornography and prostitution all pop up in the walls of this manor, and in the end Dalziel never really gets a satisfying account. At least the deaths are presumed sorted out and murderers apprehended; Dalziel has his theories, but he is never really on the case, only tangled in it.

But the crimes and mysteries here are just background noise really. This is an outing for Dalziel, and all the interesting activities take place in his stout head. Hill unleashes him in the soggy countryside, gives him some self-doubt to work his way through with a romance and something close to a friend — the elderly poet stands in for Pascoe in a number of ways, but with the power structure and balance of gruffness shuffled about. And where Pascoe spent a lot of his solo time reflecting and comprehending, Dalziel spends his time being and hunching. Dalziel outside of his job is a much more likeable man, and I wished that Hill could have sent him on vacation without being forced to bring murder along for the ride.

This is an entertaining novel, but not a particularly good detective novel. The action is either offscreen or inexplicable and slapsticky. Half of the crimes either aren't crimes or aren't solved. Dalziel can't decide for most of the novel whether he should investigate seriously — and if he does investigate, how much he can keep from the on-duty police without losing conscience? As an outing with Dalziel, it gives us the series first deep look at his character, and it is worthwhile for that reason. Not that the writing isn't strong, nor is the atmosphere thin, but I have to admit that the plot is not strong, and the secondary characters thin too.


  1. Reginald Hill passed away last month at the age of 75.
  2. I previously reviewed Ruling Passion, number three in the series.
  3. The title is taken from Keats' Ode on Melancholy, though the inspiration took less of a framing role than in some of the earlier novels. Though perhaps I was simply less alert to it.


American Pastoral by Philip Roth

American Pastoral
Philip Roth, 1997, 423p.
Roth's1 longtime alter ego, writer Nathan Zuckerman, has become fascinated with Seymour "Swede" Levov. Levov was a childhood acquaintance, an older boy who was a local hero. In Jewish pre-war Newark, Levov appeared to transcend their race and accomplish an American heroism that eluded the rest of the community. Nicknamed "Swede" for his anomalous blond hair and blue eyes, Levov is a football, basketball and baseball star athlete, and son of a Newark glove magnate.

The novel starts with Zuckerman's first person narrative of his encounters with the "Swede", and the broad details of Levov's adult life are revealed. The direct encounters with Levov in the framing narrative reveal what appears to be bland American perfection. A high school sports hero, Levov joins the war effort and is elevated to hero without being deployed. He marries Miss New Jersey, 1949 (Irish-Catholic Dawn Dwyer) and inherits his father's glove empire after genuine effort. He moves out of the city to a century stone farmhouse in an upper-middle-class WASP rural bedroom community. In the 1980s, Zuckerman encounters Levov briefly, and learns that he has remarried and has young sons. Then in the 1990s, Levov mysteriously reaches out to Zuckerman, seeming to want to relate a story. They meet at a restaurant, but Levov talks mostly about his sons and about the turmoil of the 1967 Newark Riots2. Zuckerman doesn't probe, and concludes that Levov has had the sort of life one might predict. His excellence and profound American alignment have provided a frictionless life, not without effort, but without tumult.

The framing narrative ends at Zuckerman's 45th high school reunion. Levov's younger brother Jerry, a childhood friend of Zuckerman, reveals the story that carries the second narrative. In 1968, Levov's daughter Merry appears to have planted a bomb in her hometown which kills a man, presumably to protest the war in Vietnam. She is only 16 at the time, and she goes underground, never to reemerge. Zuckerman reels. Here is, he assumes, the story Levov wanted to relate, but could not. The frictionless life was upended; truly, it disintegrates in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

With the "facts" laid before the reader, along with some statement of Zuckerman's fascination, we descend into a yet deeper fiction — Zuckerman's imagining of a specific period of Levov's life. With themes and ideas explicit and the blurring of "fact" and fiction made plain in the frame narrative, Zuckerman disappears from view, never to return. This story is laid out in the third person subjective, deeply from Levov's perspective, but with Zuckerman's intents. This narrative runs roughly from the Newark Riots in 1967 to 1972 and the Watergate Hearings, with glances backwards to Merry's childhood and Levov's courtship of Dawn. As readers, we know this story is Zuckerman's attempt to rend sense from what he has assembled of Levov's life, but this indirection doesn't deflate the immediacy of the portrait.

While specific to his circumstance, and punctuated by astonishing extreme, this is a surprisingly broad portrait of American undoing.

In the midst of riot, social upheaval, integration and disintegration, is Seymour Levov's personal bomb: Something insensibly abrupt, permanently unaccountable. Roth is ruthless with Levov, and with the reader, and I admit that I spent perhaps too much of my reading awed by his daring. He builds his story around an unbelievable act, and offers us both believability and scope, but never sedates us with accountability. Causality and reason are toyed with: were they too liberal as parents? was Merry brainwashed? her debilitating stutter? or more subtle psychic poisoning of the violence and disorder of the time? Zuckerman/Roth are building a fictional reality here, and cannot allow explication here. To successfully account for Merry's choices would be farce, but Levov is human and must try.

Roth is generous, he permits Levov a partial reconstruction: another marriage, other children — though we only know of Levov's late life from the framing narrative. The story ends with a sort of washing away of the surfaces of lives, a lengthy Thanksgiving scene where many lives are revealed as veneer over disorder. It is an ending that opens out, life continues for all, with a chance for renewal but never for genuine escape.

Roth challenges, and indeed I found this a challenging book. At times slow and contemplative, but punctuated with real and imagined violence and disorder. He leaves you clamouring for a handle on both the landscape and the circumstance. There is so much here, so much detail, so much history, so many complicated relationships, so much ambivalence and tenderness, bound together with a hopeful confusion, and an almost unbearable reality seems to emerge from the confusion. Unbearable, perhaps, but generous and rewarding.

When Roth/Zuckerman's gaze settles on the descent of Levov and Merry's father/daughter relationship, I started to wonder if the novel was a poor choice for a generally anxious father of a very young daughter. Later, I wondered if maybe it should be required reading for anxious new fathers of girls. In the end, it is a nonsense question — this sort of reading can challenge and open you, or beat you down into a dark and angry space, or perhaps a dozen other outcomes all hinged on the reader. Such a work is a latent energy, and reviewing it is like reviewing kerosene. There is power here, but figure out quickly how to handle it, or set it aside.


  1. I last (and first) reviewed Roth in Everyman, a much shorter, and less punishing work.
  2. Newark plays a fairly major role in the novel, and the sensible/senseless Newark riots are a sometimes explicit counterpoint to the sensible/senseless of Merry.


Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller, 1961, 453p.
A famous book always seems to drag along more baggage than it should. When I know of a book but haven't read it, I tend to delude myself into thinking that I know the book. For example, I've never read Dune, but I have an odd confidence that I know what it is, and what it is all about. I have a sense based on all sorts of cluttered nonsense that has cobbled itself together into an illusion of an understanding, and the moment I start reading it there will be a sudden falling away. The brain is a wicked beast this way, assembling assumptions, and I forgive it these miserable trespasses because it always proves itself fully plastic in that moment of vacuum. The moment of vacuum when you set eyes on the actual words, and your brain detonates the clutter and there is an eerie stillness of nothing. Why does this often seem a more rewarding experience that a true blank slate? Or is that just me?

I picked up Heller's (only1) classic novel with some odd sense that it would be like Joseph Conrad; that it would be a dark and strongly narrative; that it would be a personal story through war and self; that it would be sequential, uniform and fairly serious. Why did I think any of that? I can't say, the sources for all these misapprehensions were presumably razed along with everything else in the reading of the first chapter.

What I should have imagined it to be was something like Kurt Vonnegut, because it is something like Kurt Vonnegut. It isn't entirely, but if you are sitting down to not read this book tonight, that is a much better wrong place from which to not begin.

Catch-22 is not serious, it is absurd. It is not narrative, it is episodic. It isn't sequential, it is looped and deconstructed in time. It is not uniform, it is fragmented and shifts tone. It isn't personal, it is almost maniacally impersonal. Or at least, all of this becomes very clear in the first half of the novel. By the end, things are much harder to pin down so neatly.

The protagonist (of sorts) is Captain Yossarian, a American bombardier in the Second World War, stationed in a fictional air force base on a non-fictional but fictionalized island off the coast of Italy. Yossarian threads through everything, but particularly in the first third of the novel we can lose sight of him for as much as a chapter as characters, situations and settings are carefully and comically presented. We flit from one character to another with only loose connections joining one chapter to the next, and in each chapter are a handful of half-resolved threads that are drawn up again later. Laid thickly on top of all these vignettes is a double helping of uproarious absurdity that had me laughing aloud regularly. Dark absurdities are picked up and played with for a bit, then set down again: the absurdity of military structure, of medicine, of faith, of death, of trade and commerce, and particularly the absurdity of the war.

The tone is comic, but the motions of a comic novel are restricted in this setting — it becomes clear that we investigate many of these absurdities, but have to move along when the absurdity meets the horror. We learn, for example, that during a bombing mission gone horribly wrong, an officer named Snowden is killed. Yossarian is never the same after, and the change in him is a catalyst for the absurdity of his awakened responses to his surroundings. He is in a situation where he is nearly certain to eventually die in any number of horrible ways, but in an environment where self-preservation is absurd, and the structures that work to suppress self-preservation are equally absurd. Again and again, the narration picks up Snowden's death, but is forced to put it down again before fully investigating it.

The absurdity here is the kernel of the novel, and what Catch-22 really is. The idea that reality and reality exist mostly at cross purposes with each other, that survival means non-survival and non-survival means survival. If you want to fight, you are crazy and shouldn't; if you want to run you are sane and you should be made to fight. It also means that power is predicated on order but can only create disorder. That rules exist to be enforced but not read, that belief is tolerable only in a vacuum of understanding.

But in painting this characterization of the great disorder, Heller is meticulous but not self-conscious in his structure. While he apparently meanders randomly through his landscape, something odd happens. The absurdity remains, but I stopped laughing. With the people and concepts laid out carefully with us in a comic and open mood, he rotates everything 90 degrees and he has us trapped. Yossarian cannot escape this dark comedy alive, Dunbar simply ceases to exist, Orr evaporates into the sea, others fall into despair, others into madness2. In the first half I found myself irritated as Heller introduced character after character after character, the last half I realized he had to — this is a war and they will all be consumed before the end. When they are finally revealed to us after much preparation, the demises of Snowden, McWatt and so many others aren't any less absurd. But this absurdity is tragic as well as comic.

When Catch-22 was first published, some of the major reviewers felt it lacked craft. It has an ambling sense to it that feels disordered until it comes together and you comprehend the structure. And here, perhaps, is where the baggage does the novel a great favour: I read this knowing it was a classic, and I was patient with the quirkiness of the form. Though my strange expectations fell away quickly, my great expectations didn't, and I read a great book where I might have just tolerated an amusing book.


  1. From Heller's New York Times obituary: "When an interviewer told Mr. Heller that he had never written anything as good as Catch-22, the author shot back, 'Who has?'"
  2. Despite all of this, I should note that the book ends on an attempt at hope. It didn't entirely work for me, but the skill of the construction redeems it entirely. Though I would like to say more, I've already spoilered.


Wimbledon Green by Seth

Wimbledon Green
Seth, 2005, 125p.
Full disclosure: I am a hardcore Seth fan. I buy everything he authors1, and while it isn't all equal, I always enjoy it deeply. I bought and read this book when it was released over five years ago, but I hadn't read it since. I am not a big re-reader of novels, and this includes graphic novels, though it really shouldn't. Most of what I read comes from the library, but the works of Seth, Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes I buy, read, then plop on a shelf.

A recent addition to this sleepy collection was Seth's follow-up to Wimbledon Green, titled The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. I read that with the intent to review it, but then decided that I needed to review Wimbledon Green first, so I re-read it, and then re-read it again. Now I really want to re-read George Sprott, which to date I think is his best work. But all of this takes me further and further away from writing about his work, and perhaps that is more than just laziness. Seth is my favourite, and one is reluctant to reduce a favourite.

Both works are "From the Sketchbook of the Cartoonist 'Seth'", that is, he presents them as informal works. He treats them as a personal creation (though he admits in the introduction that this is a wilful delusion) and is loose and playful, and with Wimbledon Green he is experimental. Seeing a skilled but sometimes austere artist like Seth gambolling off on a loose comic romp is a joy, and there is surprising depth here, interleaved with the foolishness.

Wimbledon Green is "the greatest comic book collector in the world", in a story that imagines collectors as being super heroic. Green in particular is part superhero, with his hazy origin story, his henchmen and so forth. Or perhaps he is a supervillain, with his dubious means and selfish outcomes. As with both hero and villain, those that provide commentary on him oscillate between awe, fear and resentment.

The story is told through a series of vignettes, with talking heads alternating with more adventurous segments. Various collectors and comic book store owners offer their stories and impressions of Green, and we see first hand the moment of his great discovery, and the story of his childhood genesis. Seth explains his experiment in the introduction; He was inspired by artists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes, who have told complex stories through a series of loosely connected strips2. As a sketchbook project, though, he just started drawing and he appears to be discovering the story and the characters as he goes along, rather than illuminating a fully formed idea. The pieces don't entirely fit, and I think the key to the vignette-style of story telling is that works best if the author understands what he is unveiling clearly, such that vantages can be selected that are both interesting and fundamental. The defects here are mitigated by the lack of overall seriousness of the work — I can forgive the chunks that don't quite fit because they are light and entertaining3.

In the middle of the work is a 40+ page section that centres on a race between Green and adversaries to capture a comic book MacGuffin. Told in two long narrative sequences with an intermission to profile one of the introduced characters ("Jonah", a villainous and unflattering version of Seth himself) and an explanation of the nature of the MacGuffin in question. All of this section is told in a packed 4x5 grid, with only occasional panel joins, with each panel not much more than an inch square and drawn in a looser, more comic style than his formal work. The race sequences are boisterous and fast moving, and unlike anything by Seth I had read before.

Other sequences, like the final series, are wistful reflection in a classic Seth mode of storytelling: A primary character walks through an evocative space, narrating a personal history full of tender loss. But unlike the similar sequences in Clyde Fans, the character here has the ability to renew and escape. The introduction has altered my reading (particularly of this section), and my suggestion to readers is to skip the introduction on the first pass, then read it and at least selectively re-read.

Seth has a talent and obvious affection for creating history, particularly from the turn of the century to about the mid-1970s. His fictionalized history of comics is often more interesting than his history of collectors, perhaps because it is somewhat more passionate. Throughout the work are pages featuring "Selections from the library of Wimbledon Green", featuring covers and short catalogue descriptions ("Fatsy #7, mint-1965, infamous flatulence issue-most copies destroyed $3000", "Be A Man #1, near mint-1942, strangely homoerotic $2350"). These covers are funny, but credible enough that I have to admit I googled a couple to see if he had inserted a few real titles as a joke.

My favourite section takes this idea and gives it depth. "Fine and Dandy: A Short Talk by Wimbledon Green" is an 8 page history of a favourite but largely forgotten series by fictional comic legend Lester Moore, featuring odd-couple hobos Fine and Dandy. Green treats us to the outline of the series, with notes on reoccurring characters and running gags, and a selection of highlights from the sadly truncated run of 36 issues. Here his 4x5 grid opens up with a 2x2 cameo on each page, and we toggle back and forth between the narrative view and excerpts from the comic. Were these sorts of comics ever really as good as the fictional ones here? Probably not, but it doesn't matter, we get to enjoy the creation within a creation and Seth couldn't balance his creativity and wistfulness in a more believable and engaging way.

The portrait of an evaporating or lost creation, tangled with the success and failure of the creator, is likely Seth's most persistent story line. In Clyde Fans and George Sprott it is beautiful but the depth of the loss is somewhat oppressive; the touch of lightness here is a lovely change. And that is perhaps how to view the work as a whole. The ideas and personality of the artist remain on full display, but there is a buoyant frothiness here that is refreshing without being entirely silly. Fair warning, it is indeed silly in places. And I have to admit, a lot of the mystery around Green is coy and contrived.

Late in the novel is a four page story called "In the Temple of Newsprint", which details Green's day to day routine. Each day, he picks two works from his collection (one comic, one print) and studies each for an hour, taking notes. A lot of comic work is perhaps deserving this sort of contemplation; while both the text and the artwork is deceivingly sparse, there is so much nuance. The feel of the line work, the abstractions of form, the colouring and composition, the pacing and play of the text. Much more than prose, comics are variable speed reading. You could read this novel in 30 minutes, or spend many hours. Or like me, rocket along then get stuck on a panel here and there. Certainly in a novel you can get snagged by a sentence, but in a comic are a half dozen aspects each with as much nuance as a sentence. In a great comic, these aspects all play and fight with each other.

Perhaps I will follow Green's (and Seth's) cue here, and pull an older Chris Ware volume off my lonely shelf, and spend an hour with it.


  1. I buy all the books he writes, but couldn't possibly keep up with the books he designs. His book design work has become somewhat of a brand-name, I think.
  2. Clowes' Wilson is an extreme example, where the story of the protagonist's life is told entirely from single page strips, one after another. Clowes varies the style and tone significantly between comics, which allows style choices to be an expressive element in the story.
  3. Seth returned to this style of fragmented storytelling in a subsequent polished work: George Sprott, which is much more organized and cohesive, but also much more serious.


Everyman by Philip Roth

Philip Roth, 2006, 192p.
I've wanted to read something by Philip Roth since the excellent Writers & Company interview with Roth in the spring1. It isn't particularly surprising that I never have; I have read astonishingly little. I have had a bit more time and inclination to read over the last few months, and it is hard not to be overwhelmed with great choices. It is easy to feel like you don't even know enough to start making choices. The desire to seek shelter in lists is enormous — "10 Great Novels of the 20th Century"-this and "The Western Canon"-that2. Roth shows up in most of these lists as a key voice, and an astonishingly consistent one. He has won awards, written bestsellers, and regularly makes critic's and reader's lists for this and that, and he has for 50 years. My library provides NoveList to subscribers, which provides "start with" guidance to readers for a given author, and this was the selection for Roth3. As usual, inspiration combined with science and the library to place this novel at the top of my list.

The novel opens with the funeral of the protagonist, in a run down Jewish cemetery with deep family connection. His daughter and brother speak at length, his second ex-wife reflects on the impossibility of the situation, his bitter sons throw dirt on the coffin. His brother casts light on their childhood as sons of a jeweller in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the 1930s and 1940s, and on the bones of his life. While the skeleton materializes quickly (three wives, three children, one sibling, advertising creative who retired to paint) the mysteries materialize too. Why are his sons cold and bitter? What happened to these marriages? Why did he grow cold to his brother in his final year? What isn't mysterious is that the protagonist had medical problems for years.

With the external view of him in retrospect settled, the body of the novel addresses his life from within, and is structured primarily by his medical history. The book moves through his childhood hernia operation (his first night sleeping in a strange place away from family) to his final heart problems with seven operations in seven years, the last fatal. While we learn the story of the life and the struggles of his body, many of the mysteries from the funeral are revealed. How two of his marriages ended, and how two of them started. We learn about his relationships with his children, we learn about his final years. While we skip back and forth, the medical history mostly progresses serially. So many at the end of their lives tell their stories as a sequence of surgeries and illness, here is a whole life told this way.

Most readers will not find him wholly sympathetic, particularly his choices and impulses that lead to of the end of his second marriage. Nor will many enjoy his bleak but lucid outlook on his situation. But he is largely honest and aware of his mistakes and embarrassed by his troubling desires. He might unconvincingly justify his actions at times, but with a hint of resignation rather than anger. Genuine anger seems to bloom in him only with regards to his sons, who find any forgiveness impossible, and harbour sneering rage for decades. And perhaps there is some unfocused anger about his health, which bleeds into his relationship with his brother.

The title "Everyman" comes from the name of the unnamed protagonist's father's jewellery store; he picked the name to suggest that the jewellery was accessible to all, but also to avoid the challenges of a Jewish name. Roth invites the reader to determine in what way our nameless protagonist is "everyman"4, but it is clear that he isn't a typical "everyman" character. The structure of his childhood and adult life are not universal, and the reader isn't particularly welcome to identify with him. He is an everyman only in that he lived, he ages and he dies, and there is some universality in all of these.

If this sounds bleak, in places it is. But in my reading, at least, it was bleak with a profound tenderness. There are a series of vignettes around death and aging that I think dance between something universal and something genuinely embodied. The protagonist teaches a painting class for a time in his retirement community, and he has an encounter there with a woman coping with persistent, horrible back pain, but without her husband who was (or she feels was) the key to her vigour. Her predicament is both immediate and unreachable, and Roth's tenderness towards her is cutting but never pitying, and always matter of fact.

Roth's work here is tremendously skilled, circling around ideas, peeking at them from a couple of angles before the reader finds themselves submerged in them. The method allows him to work mostly in an accessible and undramatic way. The patterns and approaches become clear after you are finished; the reader's repeated visits to the same rundown ceremony build things up carefully, then leave the reader alone with the results. This sort of careful, human work tends to shatter me in the most rewarding way, and I have to admit I felt overwhelmed when I finished.

In reading this novel (and currently reading his American Pastoral) I am developing sympathy with Roth's desire that literature be left to the readers and the reading. Trying to discuss or review or explain this sort of work feels like a disservice or worse. I should just say I revelled in the skill, was engaged by the narrative and moved by whatever there is here that goes beyond the narrative.


  1. Elinor Wachtel's interview with Roth is worthwhile. They discuss Everyman, but because he gives interviews so rarely, she discussed his whole career with her usual depth. I've occasionally joked that I could never be an author because I don't remember my childhood well enough to answer Wachtel's questions.
  2. Particularly overwhelming is Harold Bloom's list from The Western Canon with about a hundred key books before you reach Dante.
  3. The NoveList recommendation here seems very sound; this work is short, accessible and full of what I understand are key themes and settings for Roth. I think that the "start with" advice is somewhat uneven; I am not sure I would start Pynchon with Gravity's Rainbow, as it suggests.
  4. The NPR Fresh Air interview with Roth about Everyman explains his reasoning for leaving the character nameless. I love listening to Roth, but I don't think that this is a particularly good interview. My alternate theory about the lack of a name is that it is due to Roth's clear antipathy towards critics and writers about literature — they, like me above, are force to write "the protagonist" and "the unnamed narrator" and other similarly clumsy chore phrases.