My bumper sticker reads, "Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened." Abandonment is what happened to Simon Axler. The famous 65-year-old stage and movie actor is the ultimate loser in THE HUMBLING, Philip Roth's slim new novella, the 30th of his collection. The three-act story of age's ultimate despoliation is the latest in the recent fictive trio (EVERYMAN and EXIT GHOST) of Roth's ruminations on the destructions wreaked by age.
Everything goes. The book begins where it ends with the line, "He'd lost his magic. The impulse was spent." His disappointed audience and his literary critics abandon him. His wife, unwilling to be his support, the ironically named Victoria, leaves him. After she leaves, he dreams of suicide with his trusty gun, but isn't ready. Instead, he checks into a psychiatric hospital. Ostensibly cured because he can sleep through the night, he goes home to his loneliness.
His agent understands what it's like in lines that only Philip Roth could have written:
"Let's face it. There's a panic that comes with age. One, you get slower. In everything....My speech is slower. My memory is slower. All these things start to happen. In the process, you start to distrust yourself. You're not as quick as you used to be. ...You start to feel afraid, to feel soft, to feel that you don't have the raw live power that you had. With the result...that you're not free any more. There's nothing happening--and that's terrifying."
After his agent leaves, Axler, consumed by the possibilities of suicide, reviews all the plays in which a character commits suicide from HEDDA GABLER to Konstantin in THE SEAGULL. Always aware of his lost audience, he decides to reread all these plays, for "Nobody should be able to say that he did not think it through."
Into this abyss, Pegeen Stapleford, a 40-year-old lesbian and daughter of his friends, appears on his doorstep. Roth doesn't make clear what brings her to Axler. Whether it is curiosity or opportunism is never clear. Thus begins a 13-month passionate relationship which pulls Axler out of his doldrums until Pegeen has enough. The new life that Pegeen brings is over. She takes the clothes and bookcases he brought her and walks out.
From the "transformation," Axler is catapulted into the last act. Pegeen's leaving is the abandonment he cannot sustain. Hers is the ultimate humbling, the loss of an audience that will not return.
It is no secret that this actor who has wooed suicide throughout the novel kills himself. The ultimate irony is that he shoots himself playing the role of his first big New York success long ago. Even more ironically, he kills himself in the attic where his body is discovered by the only audience left to him, his cleaning woman.
The last line connects with the first: "He had brought it off, the well established stage star, once so widely heralded for his force as an actor, whom in his day people would flock to the theater to see."
The humbling is complete. The abandonment on the first page ends on the last.