I promised last week that I would write about our book group discussion of Philip Roth's Everyman but I had to put it on the back burner for a while until I had time to think about what turned out to be an unexpectedly mixed reaction to the work. As a group our only other encounter with Roth was about eighteen months ago, when we read and thoroughly enjoyed, The Human Stain. There wasn't one of us who didn't want to go back and re-read it straight away because there was so obviously so much there to think about and learn from. Everyman, however, split the group in two, those of us who had not only 'enjoyed' it but thought that there was something extremely profound being explored in the text and those who had struggled to engage at any level and really couldn't see the point.
The book tells the story of an unnamed main character who I am going to call Everyman, beginning at the moment of his funeral and then building up his life through a patchwork of scenes until, in the final pages, we return to the moment of his death on the operating table. During a scant two hundred pages we learn about his childhood as the younger son of a Jewish Jeweller, his time working in a Design Business, his three unsuccessful marriages and his final years spent in a retirement complex on America's East Coast. And throughout the figure of Death walks with him. We are never for a moment allowed to forget this man's mortality, the fact that at any moment something may go wrong with the intricate and delicate instrument that is the human body. It is no coincidence that there is an image of the inner workings of a watch on the cover of my copy. In its concrete form it is a reminder of the clocks and watches with which Everyman's father worked; as an image it serves to reinforce the unpalatable truth that it only needs one element to go out of balance and the entire mechanism will fail.
So, we are with Everyman, when as a child of nine he makes his first visit to hospital for a hernia operation and witnesses the death of a fellow patient. In the Star Beach Retirement Village we experience vicariously the incredible pain of one of the women who lives there, pain that eventually drives her to the ultimate answer of suicide. And, we follow the progress of Everyman's own bodily weaknesses as one by one the valves in his heart fail and have to be shored up artificially. But perhaps the most damaging failures, weaknesses and deaths are not the physical ones, but those which occur in his relationships with his family. We learn little about his first wife, or why he found the marriage so unsatisfactory, but the break-up leaves him alienated not only from her but also from his two sons. While it seems that his second marriage, to Phoebe, is far more successful and their daughter, Nancy, does retain her feelings for her father, again he destroys the relationship almost on a whim and marries a woman with whom he has nothing in common and who soon goes the same way as her predecessors. Even the closeness he feels for his older brother, Howie, is destroyed by his jealousy of Howie's loving family life, business success and continuing good health. This is a man who walks with Death in one form or another all his life.
And yet, this is not, on the surface at least, a religious book. There is no suggestion that we should read this as a warning that Death might call at any moment and we should therefore look to the content of our lives in case we should be called to answer for our deeds and be found wanting. In fact, if anything I felt there was a measure of moral ambiguity here. Everyman may feel that he has lost all and that Howie has everything and we, as readers, may feel that we want to point out that Howie has lived a pretty much unblemished life, working hard, loving his family and hurting no one and thus perhaps deserves what he has, but in the final pages I think Roth raises a caveat to this easy response. Everyman is in the graveyard where his parents lie buried and this is what Roth writes:
His mother had died at eighty, his father at ninety. Aloud he said to them, "I'm seventy-one. Your boy is seventy-one." "Good. You lived," his mother replied, and his father said, "Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left."
"You lived." It seems to me that there is implicit in that phrase the idea that we cannot spend our lives in the shade of Death, we have to live and that not to live is in itself a death. "Atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left." What is asked of Everyman in the Morality play is not only unrealistic, it is also in one sense a sin against the life we have been given, whoever or whatever you may believe we have been given it by. I don't end up much liking Roth's Everyman figure, I'm pretty sure I would have rather known Howie any day of the week, but I'm not certain that I can in anyway condemn him. Morality stands on far less resolute foundations now than in did in the early sixteenth century.