Philip Roth once described his novel Portnoy's Complaint as a kind of explosion – an act of self-sabotage in which he blew up 'a lot of old loyalties' in order to liberate himself as a writer. Though less dramatically incendiary than that intemperate masterpiece, Roth's new book Exit Ghost is no less significant, for it too marks the end of something.
The exit announced in the title is that of Roth's long-time authorial surrogate and fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman. Exit Ghost closes with the words 'gone for good', as if to suggest that Zuckerman's departure from Roth's fiction is meant to be definitive. The novel, then, is both Zuckerman's reckoning with his own writing life and Roth's reckoning with Zuckerman. Consequently, it is haunted by Zuckerman's books and the other 'Zuckerman' books – in particular The Ghost Writer, the first instalment of what Roth has called an 'imaginary biography'.
When Exit Ghost opens, Nathan Zuckerman is in New York for prostate surgery. While in hospital, he catches a glimpse of Amy Bellette, who he'd met 50 years before at the home of his literary hero E.I. Lonoff, an encounter recorded in The Ghost Writer. Amy, now decrepit and ravaged by a tumour, turns out to have in her possession half of a manuscript by Lonoff. The other half is in the hands of an incorrigibly ambitious would-be biographer named Richard Kliman.
Zuckerman tries to resist Kliman's prurience on Lonoff's, and Amy's, behalf. But he, and we, are haunted by the thought that Kliman might in fact be the ghost of his, Nathan's, younger self – the young man who had confessed to Lonoff that when you admire a writer you become curious, you 'look for his secret, the clue to his puzzle'. It's not clear from this splendid novel whether Roth is leaving us a clue or in fact warning us that there's no secret to discover.