Persistent Ghosts

Recently I read two novels that, after some thought, work as examples of effective and ineffective sequels.  I confess up front I’m stretching things to make a point here and I in no way recommend a similar reading strategy.  I’m indulging myself in this in order to explain something.

I haven’t read Philip Roth since Portnoy’s Complaint came out in paperback.  Yes, I read it that long ago and, yes, I was probably far too young for it.  My impression of it at the time is hard to recapture, but it left me kind of stunned.  For one, I hadn’t encountered that kind of writing before (not even in some of the porn magazines I’d snuck into the house) and to see it in something on any best seller list was a shock to my 13-year-old psyche.  For another, the self-conscious analysis of an adolescent “matter in transition” surprised me.  I’m not sure it helped or just made me feel that the malaise in which I found myself then (and for a few years to come) was inevitable, which was depressing.

For whatever reason, I never went back to Roth.  From time to time I’ve thought that might have been a mistake.  He’s a Big Deal and maybe I’ve missed something.

So a month or so back I found a couple of used copies of his later novels, picked them up, and the first one I read was Exit Ghost.  For those who’ve kept up, of course, this is one of the ending books in his ongoing Zuckerman series.  From this novel, I gather Zuckerman is a kind of alter-ego for Roth himself.  A famous and successful writer (they aren’t always the same thing) moving through the travails of his fame and success, observing with his writer’s eye the changing landscapes around him.

In this one, Zuckerman has been living as an isolate in the country for several years, especially after prostate surgery which has left him both incontinent and impotent.  He returns to New York on the promise of a new procedure that may at least address his incontinence.  Roth vividly allows the reader to feel the misery of Zuckerman’s condition.  While in New York, Zuckerman meets a young couple who wish to leave (this is the aftermath year of 9/11) for some place Not New York, and offer to swap their apartment for his cabin for a year.

Zuckerman falls headlong into lust for the wife.

He begins working on a fictionalized treatment of their potential liaison, cleverly counterpointing it with what actually happens, at least in their conversations, which he (fictionally) idealizes.  The fictional treatment makes her more self-possessed and himself cleverer.  While all this is going on, Zuckerman finds himself dealing with resurrected ghosts of his literary (and erotic) past and the fact that he no longer knows how to function in this New York after having been away so long.

The writing is beautiful.  There are sentences here superbly crafted, achingly fraught with meaning.  I can see why Philip Roth is considered so highly.

But there is, in the end, only one ghost present which is seeking exit.  Portnoy.  It seems he is still writing about the problems of wanting to get laid, not getting laid, and wishing ardently to not feel guilty about either condition.  Fifty plus years after my last Philip Roth novel, I find that the work is still, at least in part, about the same things.  At least, in this instance.

Portnoy, however, is rather pathetic as a ghost.  He doesn’t disturb much other than the memory of erections no longer possible.  He moves around in the ruins of what was once a vital life, trying to find a way of accepting things as they are, not quite succeeding, and changing nothing.

Tim Powers, however, gives us much more tangible—and dangerous—ghosts in his Hide Me Among The Graves, which is at least a thematic sequel to his The Stress of Her Regard.  As in the previous novel, Powers gives us vampires, but not of the usual sort.  Powers’ vampires are not half-rotted corpses rising, undead, from graves, former humans with a thirst for their living cousins’ blood and a desire to replicate themselves.  Rather, Powers gives us the Nephilim, the remnants of a race that once dominated the Earth before the rise of the oyxgen-breathing, fast-living creatures of a Cambrian eco-system with no place for silicate-based life.  For Powers, these holdovers are the Lamiae, and they feed on iron and love in a grotesque symbiosis, one byproduct of which is artistic brilliance.  Among their captive suitors are Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Coleridge.

With their attention comes madness and the destruction of all competitors for the obsessive love they seem to crave.  Long life, genius, and ultimately a kind of moral corruption that ends up justifying any destruction in the name of…

Well, continuation, really.  These are ghosts that seek actively to persist.

While they come from outside the psyché, they are profoundly dependent on it.  On the willingness of their human partners, on their devotion, their protection, really, and therefore, for Powers, everything comes down to a matter of will.

In The Stress of Her Regard, the artistic center is represented by Byron and Shelley.  In this new novel, that center is the Rossettis—Dante Gabriel and Christina, specifically, with Swindburne as a sort of fifth wheel who learns about the lamiae and very much wants their attention, pining for the brilliance that results from it.

And as in the previous novel, it is those on the sidelines who are instrumental in ending the possessions of the ghosts.

As in the Roth, sex is very much at the heart of the infection.  There is spiritual V.D. in the relations Powers depicts.  We all bring our ghosts along to bed with us, but in the case of the Nephilim these are ghosts with lingering, almost incurable consequences.  And yet, celibacy is no guarantor of health.  Those with whom one’s cousin sleeps could kill you just because.

The brilliance that is a symptom of their infection strikes one as kin to the apparent genius unlocked by syphilis, as in people like Nietzsche

Powers’ ghosts move amid ruins as well, in this case the ancient tumbledowns of a London burned by Boadicea, who is herself become one of the Nephilim.  The new London often seems not much more than an incipient ruin itself as the protagonists, John Crawford and Adelaide McKee—both collateral damage in their own ways of the bigger game being played among these ancient monsters—strive to defeat them so they can save their daughter and try to have something like a normal life in which simple love dominates.

In this, Powers shows us a place of solace, a resolution, a condition wherein the ghosts can quieten finally, and peace has a chance to succeed.  The ghosts are recognizably Outside and putting them back outside offers a chance to go on wholly according to one’s self will.

Roth, on the other hand, shows us someone whose ghosts are completely of his own contrivance who treats them as if they are (or should be) something Outside—that can be run from, hidden from, denied.  The failure to recognize them for what they are—ultimately failures of will—condemns Zuckerman to a sophisticated kind of adolescent denial of reality.  Success—however it is defined, no matter how modest—is impossible.

In this, curiously, there is one other similarity between the subtexts of the two works, and that is that genius can be a trap.  What we might sacrifice for it can cut us off from kinder choices, saner trajectories, blind us to certain obvious realities, and give us a justification to cause harm without acknowledging that its expression, too, is a matter of will.  Powers, of the two, shows us clearly that genius is no excuse for embracing monsters or giving our lives over to ghosts.  I’m not altogether sure Roth would accept that formulation.

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