In the medieval morality play Everyman, the eponymous hero is summoned by Death to give a final account of his life in this world. Everyman, immersed in sin, pleads, bargains, weeps, seeks fruitlessly for help and, finally, repents; as his body sinks to the grave, his soul rises to heaven. In Philip Roth’s novel Everyman, the anonymous hero also faces death, also looks back on a life of error, also finds himself bereft before the grave. But here there is no repentance, no soul and no heaven: “Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life…. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.” In the end, instead of angels, there are only doctors; instead of salvation, extinction.
Everyman belongs to a minor strain in Roth’s work–along with The Breast (1972), Deception (1990) and The Dying Animal (2001), it is the fourth in a series of novellas that have punctuated his steady production of ambitious novels over the past several decades. The four bear a family resemblance that goes beyond their length (and that distinguishes them from Goodbye, Columbus, the 1959 novella that inaugurated Roth’s career). Each presents a narrowly focused fictional world largely stripped of social context: a few characters, a couple of settings, a minimum of descriptive elaboration. The aesthetic means are similarly restricted: Deception is told entirely through dialogue; The Breast takes place in the mind of a man trapped inside the gland into which his body has been transformed. These are not short novels, fictions in which the novel’s imaginative expansiveness has been placed in the service of a relatively limited subject, but something else, narratives that possess a deliberate spareness and self-conscious artificiality that are akin to those of a laboratory experiment.
The reason for these austerities lies in the thematic horizon the four also share. These are narratives that know only two realities: desire and death. Which means, in fact, that they know only one reality, the body, stretched tight between the twin poles of its fate. “There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us.” Our bodies drive us to betray others, and then our bodies betray us. They bring us ecstasy and then they bring us death, and in these works the two are always tightly intertwined. In The Dying Animal, whose title could serve for the whole series, the protagonist’s young lover goes from having beautiful breasts to having breast cancer. In The Breast, the protagonist’s body is itself destroyed in becoming the object it craves. In Everyman, a hernia to the left of the groin and a burst appendix to the right are shots across the bow that prefigure a long siege of ruined virility.
In fact, we’re told, if the protagonist of Everyman had written an autobiography, he would have called it The Life and Death of a Male Body, and the title is clearly offered as an alternative one for the novella itself. The adjective here is key. Masculinity has long been a central issue for Roth: what it means to be a man, how one becomes a man, how one retains one’s masculine potency. It is not surprising, then, that health in his work is virtually synonymous with sexual health, losing one with losing the other. The protagonists of his recent postwar trilogy–American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain–are all physically powerful men, athletes or fighters or both, manly heroes in the American mold, their virility thrown into relief by the admiring gaze of Roth’s narrative alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who has been rendered impotent, he tells us near the trilogy’s start, by prostate surgery. One of the chief tragedies in Roth’s last novel, The Plot Against America, is the loss of the ability of Newark’s Jewish fathers to fulfill their masculine duty to protect their children from the world’s assaults.