Thoughts on “Everyman”

June 9, 2006

In "The Anatomy Lesson," Nathan Zuckerman is tortured by searing neck pains. He lies on his floor helpless, unable to do anything other than wallow and copulate. His pain is a very real physical manifestation of his writer's block, and anxiety over the success of Carnovsky, and the deaths of his family. His only remaining dream is to give up, go back to the University of Chicago, and become a doctor. Although the book has a hopeful ending, its unclear where Zuckerman will go, and what he'll do. Years later, he'll reemerge in Prague.

The protagonist of "Everyman" is afflicted by the worst pain of all: the realization that he will die. Pain is absent. The nameless protagonist goes from hospital bed to hospital bed, but hardly feels anything but despair. Even when there is pain, it is washed over; the book is not about suffering in the short run, but about a long decline. Physical anguish becomes mental strife.

Zuckerman is an artist cripled by success. Our "Everyman" is a successful Ad Man with dreams of being an artist. He has had the day job that Zuckerman dreamed about at his worst moments, and lived it as well as he could. Zuckerman has the artist's life Everyman always wanted, or pretended he could have. Neither are really happy.

The core of "Everyman", like "The Anatomy Lesson", is the struggle to find a happy life in the face of the realization that you will die: Everyman literally dying, and Zuckerman losing his ability to write. Neither book reaches a satisfying conclusion. Death is always going to become both of them; Zuckerman is just further removed. The novels are both extremely personal, both extremely close to Roth. One gets the sense that the only thing stopping him from dying is writing, and that his immortality is voluminity (probably not a real word). For my part, as long as the books are as well done as "Everyman", which is by no stretch of anyone's imagination one of Roth's better books, I'll do my part to keep him alive by reading.

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