I still remember the time Philip Roth’s Everyman burst forth into our lives with a huge splurge of marketing and publicity – you couldn’t walk by the city without noticing the book was coming out. After the hype had died down and the paperback had pushed the prices to reasonable levels, but just before the book is mercilessly pushed back from the front shelves to make way for the new, I decided to give it a try.
Everyman is a rather depressing narrative about an old man coming face to face with his physical vulnerabilities and eventually, his own mortality. The book opens with a funeral scene at a run-down Jewish cemetery, where the protagonist’s family is gathered for his funeral. The beginning sets the tone for the rest of the book. At times, it seems to be a never ending narrative of someone’s predictably uninteresting medical history. There is not much that even the best of writers can do to make hernia followed by appendicitis followed by carotid artery surgery and angioplasty and six stents interesting. At other times, it is his attempts to come to terms with the life he had lived, for the decisions he made, for the family he could have had.
Perhaps, this is where I let my own personal judgment cloud the literary appreciation of the book, but I just couldn’t identify with the protagonist enough to appreciate his worries, anxieties and vulnerabilities. A womanizer who leaves his first wife and two resentful sons for a woman, who by his own admission, was his perfect companion, whom he leaves again to marry a Danish model nearly 20 years his junior, and for whom the only passion, even when he is living in a retirement village, seems to be the young women jogging by his home and not even the art which he had decided to dedicate his retirement to. Perhaps it is that my age and gender combined are too big an obstacle in appreciating this book, perhaps I expect something of substance from a character whose introspections I read page after page, and if that substance is lacking perhaps I look for an explanation, may be even an apology even. But then, I am willing to admit that I might be the one missing the point here because after all the book is about everyman, the average Joe, and a man, not a woman.
As can be expected of a book about the subject, the book does have its snippets of wisdom. When Roth tells us that life’s most disturbing intensity is death or when he observes that old age isn’t a battle, but a massacre, we are forced to put down the book for a moment and think over the gravity of what we have just read. The devil, they say, is in the details and there are plenty of them, more often beautifully delivered than not. For one, I could not have imagined one could describe for two pages on how a grave is dug and still keep a reader turning the pages. And then, of course, there is the unforgettable narrative where he ponders about what could have been the thoughts that must have preceded his friend who had committed suicide, as an escape from the grueling pain that disease had brought upon her.
Not every part of the book is depressing. There is the occasional joy that he finds in remembering the joys of his youth and the vitality of his body.
The mark of any great book is its ability to make readers think, and if the thoughts continue to haunt them even after they have put down the book, the better it is. And on that count, Everyman scores very high. So much so, I am going to bore you, my dear readers, with some of my own nagging thoughts inspired by the book.
Recently, after a very long time, I met my great aunt, who is enjoying reasonably good health if you consider she is in her late nineties and discount some amount of memory loss. While the first thought that entered my mind when I met her was that I would be very lucky if I was like her when I am her age, she kept constantly reminding me that old age is a curse, even for someone like her. I guess it is. And I can only guess. And perhaps that is the real reason I didn’t particularly enjoy this book.
I like to live in my own delusion that when old age comes around, I will enjoy it and I will be happy to move into that phase of my life. After all, if I was happy to move from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence into adulthood, why would the next transition be any more difficult? Admittedly, one has more ailments and physical vulnerabilities, but I would hope one is surer of one’s place in the world, is proud of what one has achieved in his or her lifetime, and in general, is looking forward to a happy time, devoid of pressing demands and responsibilities.
I have reason to hope that the only topics that seem to be interest ‘everyman’ beyond the age of sixty are not nostalgically turning over their lives past events or trying hard not to stare at young women in jogging suits. Sure, the older you are, the more you are allowed to reminisce, and the frailer your health, the more time you spend realizing how important it is. But still. Perhaps I am too young or just naÃ¯ve, but does old age have to be so depressing?
All in all, this book was not for me. May be it will be, when I am older and wiser. Or perhaps, it is not meant to be a book for any one, but one meant to jolt you from your daily life and make you look at the inevitable, in a not so kindly way. And in that sense, may be it is, after all, a book for everyman.