In the fall and winter of 1991, I spent a few cloistered months reading Joseph Conrad with Edward Said. There were twelve of us in his class, and our task was to read every work of fiction Conrad wrote and discuss them together twice a week. Said assumed that all of us cared as much as he did about what we were reading, so no time was wasted on details of class administration, and we approached our task with a sense of high purpose. From Almayer’s Folly to the late existential works like The Shadow-Line, we would take turns reading a brief passage and discussing why it was there, what Conrad meant for us to see. Said wanted to know what Conrad meant on every page, in every paragraph, in every line. Why this word and not some other? In class, Said had the pugnacious charm of a boxer, and his response to a wayward effort to make sense of what we were reading could be fierce. “No, Mr. Weiland,” he would say. “That isn’t it at all.” There was an intense restlessness in that room, as though a bomb needed defusing and the clock was ticking down. I was glad to be working with wires and explosives.

One day in the middle of the semester Said arrived, as usual, after we had arranged ourselves around the table. Unlike every other classroom I’ve known, there was no talk between students in those anxious moments before class began: we waited, always, in silence. But on this day a student we hadn’t seen before was standing in the doorway. As Said took his seat, the student addressed him, saying he was a one-time visitor who’d come to audit the class.

“Is it still OK if I join you today?” he asked good-naturedly.

Said, unsmiling, jerked his head toward the door. “No, get out.”

“But I was told–”

“Get out!”

The student scurried out before any of us could catch his eye; we were too busy trying not to catch Said’s. He was fuming and his flushed fingers were clenched around a pen. He didn’t turn back to us until the student had gone and the door was shut. It was as though he had erupted. A moment later, he took a breath, looked at us blankly and asked someone to read from that day’s assigned portion.

We never did learn the unfortunate young man’s story. I suppose he had made arrangements with an assistant who had neglected to tell Said. Or perhaps he had spoken with Said himself, who had simply forgotten. I don’t know. But I won’t forget Said’s astonishing anger.

We didn’t know then that Said had not long before been given a seemingly “fatal medical diagnosis,” as he later described it: leukemia. He would endure years of chemotherapy and other brutal treatments, and he lived until 2003. But that fall the new diagnosis was in the air, and death was in his eyes.

What happens in Philip Roth’s new novel, Exit Ghost, isn’t hard to summarize: Roth’s novelist hero, Nathan Zuckerman, having spent a decade in an isolated house in the Berkshires, returns to New York to see a Mount Sinai urologist about his prostate cancer. Zuckerman is 71, impotent, incontinent and absorbed in rereading Joseph Conrad for the first time in fifty years. He’s got The Shadow-Line with him. In the week he spends in the city, he encounters a frail and head-scarred Amy Bellette, the object of his youthful infatuation in The Ghost Writer; she is undergoing treatment for brain cancer at the same hospital. During the week, Zuckerman learns that a 30-year-old woman and her husband are looking to swap their Manhattan apartment for a country retreat; he swiftly makes the woman, Jamie Logan, the object of his infatuation.

Add a great deal of clumsy erotic fantasy and itchy, repetitive rumination on the nature of fiction and biography, and… that’s about it. And yet it is an enormously affecting dirge on the theme of physical, political and social decline. Once alive to the moment, Zuckerman is now out of sorts and out of step: he expects groceries to be packed in boxes rather than bags, he rails against cellphones, he wonders who Tom Cruise is. He laments his lost time, his lost appetites, his lost desires, his lost place in the world. Even his passion for America, which so strongly colored the earlier Zuckerman novels, has faded. Having been “enthralled by America for nearly three-quarters of a century,” he explains, he moved to the remote countryside to “remain in America without America’s ever again being absorbed in me.”

Zuckerman isn’t the only one doing the lamenting. While he no longer cares enough to vote, Jamie and her husband, Billy, are earnest and engaged liberals. A scene in which the three of them watch the 2004 presidential election results captures the dying light of that dismal night: early on Jamie and Billy hear from friends at the Democratic national headquarters that “exit polls showed Kerry winning all the states he needed”; later Jamie, out to pick up food, gathers from passersby that things don’t look good in Ohio; when she returns, her husband begins to sour as they wait for further word. Finally, as it becomes clear that Bush has won the election, Jamie bursts: “This is now the night before it all got even worse!” With a playwright’s gift for pacing a scene, and mixing interior monologue with dramatic exchange, Roth ends this one with Zuckerman at once drawn by Jamie’s passion and distanced from it. “She was…looking at me the way somebody being helped from a burning building or freed from a car crash looks at you, as though as an observer you might have something to say that could account for the catastrophe that’s altered everything.”

But most of all, the book chronicles Zuckerman’s flickering rage against his own decline. He removes himself from the stage only to jump back in front of the footlights (“Back in the drama, back in the moment, back into the turmoil of events!”), then remembers–and is constantly reminded–that his time is nearly up. In Central Park, a would-be literary biographer shouts at him, “You’re dying, old man, you’ll soon be dead! You smell of decay! You smell like death!”

Exit Ghost is a meditation on time and the shape a life takes across it. This is Roth’s subject from the first page, in which Zuckerman declares that he has “ceased to inhabit not just the great world but the present moment,” to the last, in which Zuckerman tells young Jamie as she resists his outrageous advances that she is finally “crossing Conrad’s shadow-line, first from childhood into maturity, then from maturity into something else.” Zuckerman even mentions wanting to call his next book Then and Now.

At the center of it all is Zuckerman’s relationship with Amy Bellette. Much of the emotional force of The Ghost Writer lay in his fantasy of her as a living, breathing Anne Frank. Exit Ghost reveals her true story: born in Norway to Lithuanian and Polish Jews, she fled in 1942 after her father was arrested by the Gestapo, first through the woods to Sweden and eventually to America. There are further revelations of family secrets in Exit Ghost, but it is the pathos of Zuckerman encountering Bellette reduced to rags in a tumbledown apartment in the East Village that leaves the ache. (There are resonances here of the extraordinary scene in American Pastoral when Swede Levov discovers his daughter Merry living in a decrepit hovel off a highway in Newark.)

The life Bellette leads has nothing in common with the majestic life Zuckerman had imagined her living with the great writer E.I. Lonoff on that snowy night in 1956. It is a future self that Zuckerman could not have imagined–and it galls him. “Coming back to someone after that span of time, and after I’ve had cancer and she’s had cancer, our clever young brains both the worse for wear–maybe that’s why I was close to trembling and why she had donned a long yellow dress in fashion, if ever, half a century before. Each of us so in need of this figure from the past. Time–the power and the force of time–and that old yellow dress over her defenseless frame overshadowed by death!”

Wanting her to fill in the story of those missing years, Zuckerman asks: “So what have you done, then?” Exit Ghost–indeed the Zuckerman novels as a whole–resembles an extended Shakespearean soliloquy on that gray word “done.” It is at the root of all the strongest, sharpest questions we ask ourselves and others, the sorts of sentences that can take both question mark and exclamation point. Amy: “Done? What a word. Done. I’ve translated books…. That’s what I’ve done. But mostly what I do is drift. I’ve just drifted and drifted and now I’m seventy-five. That’s how I got to be seventy-five: continually drifting.” Zuckerman: “This way or that, arrow or drifter, you still reach the end.”

Roth has played with the experience of time in many of his late novels; in Exit Ghost his focus is not just on the arc that a life takes, what it feels like to trace the parabola of days and years, but on how painful it is to see other lives lose their shape and come undone. The novel presents an ambivalent view of life’s vicissitudes: pain at the seeming failure of a life to live up to its promise, acceptance that life is but a life lived. “I did what I did,” says Zuckerman. “That’s all one knows looking backward. I made the ordeal that was mine out of the inspiration and the ineptitude that were mine.”

Exit Ghost is about whether we’re astonished by death or by the life that precedes it. It is a book of many exits: from the ghost from Macbeth in the title, to the suicide of Zuckerman’s neighbor in the first section, to the story Amy Bellette tells of Lonoff slowly dying, to the death threats Zuckerman imagines himself to be getting, to the real feeling of being swept off the stage that Zuckerman experiences.

Roth even takes as his epigraph a line from Dylan Thomas’s poem “Find Meat on Bones,” in which a dying father addresses his son. In the last stanza the father declares, “Doom on the sun!” The last line is the son’s reply to the father: “Before death takes you, O take back this.” This is the line that serves as the epigraph to Exit Ghost, a scratching plea to find some light in death’s darkness.

But the most moving death in the novel, the one that captures Zuckerman’s imagination, is that of George Plimpton. In the penultimate section Zuckerman recounts the story of his long friendship with Plimpton, and of Plimpton’s antic enthusiasms, from boxing to birding. The whole scene, mixing history that seems wholly in the voice of Philip Roth but stitched into Nathan Zuckerman’s life, is out of place, out of keeping with the narrative and disruptive of the plot–and it is perfect.

For Zuckerman, Plimpton’s death is unimaginable, and it forces him to realize that there are indeed some things even he cannot imagine. “If I had been asked,” says Zuckerman, “who among your contemporaries is least likely to die…the only answer possible would have been ‘George Plimpton’…. The closest George would ever come to dying would be to simulate it in an article for Sports Illustrated.”

Plimpton does die, and he dies unceremoniously and suddenly, which to Zuckerman is the final, impossible insult. “Humorously and unusually–that’s how George and his friends imagined themselves dying back before they believed they would, back when dying was just another idea to have fun with. ‘Oh, there’s death too!’ But the death of George Plimpton was neither humorous nor unusual. It was no fantasy either. He died not in pinstripes at Yankee Stadium but in pajamas in his sleep. He died as we all do: as a rank amateur.”

In 1998 I attended a reading by Studs Terkel, then in his mid-80s, at an auditorium in the West Village. Fifteen minutes into the event, one of the organizers rushed up to the lectern and whispered something in Terkel’s ear. He was quite deaf even then, and we in the audience could hear him saying “What? What?” to the organizer before confusion gave way to a stricken look of concern and raw fear.

It gradually became clear that Terkel’s wife had had some kind of accident in Chicago, that she had seriously hurt herself at home and was being taken to the hospital. The message passed along to Terkel apparently included a firm suggestion that he should hurry home lest he arrive too late. The details weren’t clear, of course, but there was a sympathetic shudder in the auditorium as Terkel made a hurried but dignified apology and hastened from the room.

As the audience got their coats and left, I milled about the lobby, a bit dazed, wondering which would be worse for Terkel: that public moment of discovery up there at the front of the stage, a thousand eyes watching him as he was informed of bad news, while the mind struggles to make sense of the senseless and sudden? Or the long flight home, the slow slog of processing it all, the private hours of not knowing, the mind free to imagine the worst and able to do nothing about it?

Terkel’s books are above all full of the enormous vitality of the people he’s interviewed. Disheartened in that dull lobby, what came to my mind were some extraordinarily buoyant lines he’d written in the preface to his first book, Division Street: America. “Being neither a sociologist nor a research man, motivational or otherwise, I followed no blueprint or book or set of statistics. I played hunches–in some instances, long shots. Irvin Cobb observed, ‘All horse players must die broke.’ Here is one who will die astonished.”

Some novels resonate for the things they force us to forget, others for the memories they compel us to recall. Absorbed in the welter of the story, we find ourselves looking back from the page, at the hands that hold it, thinking of past blisters and broken bones, of the streets and people that made their mark. Like the writer, the reader may “meditate on the meaning of [his] own past,” as Conrad wrote in the author’s note to The Shadow-Line, until “it seems to fill all the world in its profundity and its magnitude.”

Exit Ghost is both fish and hook: just when you think you’re standing firm on the shore, deaf to the world as you watch the glinting fish thrash in the air, you find you’re gasping for breath just below the waterline, a metal barb pricked in your lip. You remember carefree days with rod and reel back on solid ground as you struggle to break free, you shiver as the water rises and blood begins to seep out. You think: that fish is lovely! You realize: I’m hooked! And it’s all over.