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Exit Ghost is the start, or possibly the end, of Philip Roth’s long goodbye. It identifies itself as the last of the Zuckerman novels, title and action rhyming The Ghost Writer, which, first published by The New Yorker in 1979, introduced the novelist’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (and which has, along with three other Zuckerman chronicles, been newly anthologized by the Library of America).

In The Counterlife (1986), Zuckerman toured Israel and relocated to London, doubling as his brother as well as his creator. In subsequent “historical” novels—American Pastoral (1997), The Human Stain (2000), and I Married a Communist
(1998)—Zuckerman, now a Berkshire Mountains recluse, was the teller of other men’s tales. With Exit Ghost, he returns to New York and narrative center stage, back in the city after an absence of 13 years for a tumultuous 10-day stay coinciding with the 2004 election of George W. Bush.

Refusing a pilgrimage to Ground Zero (which “would have been wholly out of character for the character I’d become”), Zuckerman unexpectedly opens himself up to “the irritants, stimulants, temptations, and dangers of the present moment” by imagining he might swap houses with a young couple, Billy and Jamie, aspiring writers both. This abortive transaction is made all the more torturous by Zuckerman’s obsession with the winsome Jamie.

Exit Ghost is populated by familiar Rothian types—the perfidious woman, the literary pest—and, in addition to Zuckerman, the novel reintroduces a character from The Ghost Writer. Amy Bellette was the beautiful refugee whom young Nathan discovered to be the mistress of his literary idol E.I. Lonoff and whom he imagined as a miraculously survived Anne Frank. Her return gives Exit Ghost aspects of a thriller: What’s the story of her five years with Lonoff, and what became of Lonoff’s unfinished novel? And what has happened to Amy, whom Zuckerman first glimpses in a Manhattan coffee shop wearing a cardigan over a hospital gown, a red rain hat imperfectly concealing her bald, scarred skull?

Amy resembles a Samuel Beckett character; Zuckerman is one. His prostate cancer, first alluded to in American Pastoral, has left him impotent and incontinent, conditions he describes in vivid detail. Diapers are frequently changed while his “once rigid instrument of procreation was now like the end of a pipe you see sticking out of a field somewhere . . .” Like a Beckett character, Zuckerman talks to himself— or rather to his literary creations. Indeed, he consorts with them. At the heart of Exit Ghost are four scenes from a text called He and She, in which a smitten Zuckerman improves upon actual interactions to fashion an ongoing dialogue between himself and Jamie—”[t]he conversations she and I don’t have more affecting even than the conversations we do have, and the imaginary ‘She’ vividly at the middle of her character as the actual ‘she’ will never be.”

It’s a willfully deconstructing and poignant exercise in ventriloquism. (“You’re an original, Jamie,” Zuckerman flatters himself in flattering his creation. “There aren’t a million copies of you.”) But as Jamie embodies Zuckerman’s “soft-headed fantasy of regeneration,” a brash cultural journalist serves as a mutant version of his younger self. Jamie’s college lover, the dread Richard Kliman, plots to make his career by exposing a scandal at the heart of Lonoff’s art and thus, per Zuckerman, “replace the genius of the genius with the secret of the genius.” (This is Roth’s constant complaint; having performed a prolonged dance of the seven veils in merging his fiction with his personal life, the novelist is furious when his critics make any such connection.)

Intimations of mortality are everywhere. Conrad’s novella The Shadow-Line— in which a youth passes into adulthood and through which Zuckerman passes back into his youth—is frequently evoked. Jamie and Billy listen to Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Amy quotes Lonoff’s assertion that “We are ghosts witnessing the end of the literary era.” Zuckerman himself cites Keats’s last letter: “I have a habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.” The author pays extended homage to his (and Roth’s) erstwhile publisher, the late George Plimpton. He informs the reader that this book will likely be his last, and fears that Kliman is waiting for him to die to assume control of his life story.

This interplay is powerful enough to be thrilling. Taking its title from a Shakespeare stage direction, Exit Ghost may be the most literary text Roth has ever written. “Fiction for him was never representation,” Zuckerman says of Lonoff. “It was rumination in narrative form.” And so it is for Roth. Exit Ghost ponders the proliferation of cell phones as well as cancerous cells; imagining death, Zuckerman composes a glorious sentence that segues into the final installment of He and She (and Exit Ghost). Thus, the author struggles to secure his place in eternity. As iterated by Exit Ghost and reiterated by the Library of America, Roth has become his oeuvre. In that context, this book is a triumph.