‘Everyman’ by Philip Roth ****

Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth seems to be a little hit and miss for many readers; I have heard comments which call his work pretentious, and others which state that his characters are unrealistic.  I had read a couple of his other books before picking up a copy of his novella, Everyman, from the library, and very much enjoy his prose style, hence my reasoning for writing a full review.  First published in 2006, Everyman won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

9780099501466The novella is described as ‘a candidly intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that it ‘shimmers with the mysteries and regrets of a whole life…  poignant, droll and eloquent.’  The Observer grandly declares that it is ‘capable of altering the way you see the world.’

Roth’s Everyman is never named.  We follow his life backwards from his funeral, at the outset of the story, and meander through various childhood memories, his marriages, and his troubled relationships with his children.  The novella aims to explore ‘the common experience that terrifies us all.’

I find it such an interesting plot device when an author chooses to begin a work at the end of the central character’s life, and in this case, it really captured my attention.  The opening, in which various people who had connections to Everyman have gathered, is striking.  Roth writes: ‘Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.’  Everyman is then eulogised both by Nancy, and his brother, Howie, who says: ‘We can say of him what has doubtless been said by their loved ones about nearly everyone who is buried here: he should have lived longer.  He should have indeed.’  After the funeral, Roth comments: ‘That was the end.  No special point had been made.  Did they all say what they had to say?  No, they didn’t, and of course they did.  Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his, routine, ordinary…  [and] no more or less interesting than any of the others.’

Roth, in a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of Everyman, builds a full portrait of his protagonist.  He considers how this particular individual deals with tragedy, and how he discovers his own mortality.  We learn about his interactions with those around him, his three marriages, and the professional relationships which he formed during his career.  Roth also places attention upon the medical issues which Everyman had, writing: ‘… he was still only in his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seems threatened all the time.  He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.’

A.S. Byatt calls Everyman ‘a story for our times’, and in a way, it is.  There are very particular scenes in here, which of course not a great deal of readers will be able to entirely relate to, but I felt that Roth’s presentation of his central character was fully thought out, and his actions of interest.  I found the novella really easy to get into, and enjoyed Roth’s prose and turns of phrase.  His writing is intelligent, and whilst one does need to concentrate on his style at first, it is well worth the effort.  Roth’s approach is introspective, and he explores, with a lot of depth, his Everyman, in this satisfying story.

4 thoughts on “‘Everyman’ by Philip Roth ****

  1. Interesting story–good review. The last book of his that I read was Nemisis the review of which I reposted a week ago to go with the current pandemic. I find his writing to generally be enjoyable. I read most of his early things in college and in that era.

  2. How interesting! I was just writing recently about backwards-told tales as Martin Amis’s “Times Arrow” is very famous for this, but he was preceded by his step-mother Elizabeth Howard with “The Long View”. It’s a fascinating topic! I’ve only read one Roth – “The Plot Against America” – but I did enjoy it!

    • Oh, I adore ‘Time’s Arrow’! I first read it as a teenager, and was absolutely blown away by it. I must read more of Howard’s work; I’ve only read one novel, and I loved it, but for some reason I’ve not picked up anything else since!

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