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The International Writers Magazine: Review Archives

Everyman by Philip Roth
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN-13: 978-0-099-50146-6

Josef Fiser

'It’s six feet deep, it looks good, you could jump down in the hole. Like the old guy used to say who I first dug with, it’s got to be flat enough to lay a bed out on it.’

We’re talking about a grave, a grave in the graveyard where our hero ends up. In the book’s very beginning so don’t worry, I’m not revealing its denouement, you won’t be deprived of all its surprises. Not because of this review. There is actually nothing surprising in the Everyman’s story, not in the common sense of the word – there are no twists, there is a very little suspense, there are no worries about characters’ well-being. But what is surprising is the fact that the book is more than interesting even without those usual attributes of a ‘good’ novel.

After short funereal prologue where our hero’s life journey ends starts the story of his life all over, or better, starts the story of his death all over. He – no name, it is Everyman Roth is writing about – is an artist, a want-to-be-an-artist, who was working in advertising for the most of his life. Quite successfully, so he doesn’t need to worry about money in his retirement. But he has lots of different, more serious worries in his ‘let’s-finally-do-whatever-we-wanted-to-do-all-our-life’ age. His body is failing, bonds to his friends and family are disappearing, the sense of his further being seems to have never existed and the only thing left are his memories. Those are nicely connected to all important moments of his life after the first serious operation, revealed in calm, simple and somehow entertaining way, shoving all crucial lives and deaths he has met. But it is not a weepy lamentation about fleetingness of human’s life, it is not looking for life changing mistakes and wondering what the life would be if you would have made another decision, in those times when you still could have made a difference. It is not a book which would force you to pity the main character, or to hate him for that matter. It keeps its distance too much to allow that.

It reveals the cult of body from quite unexpected points of view, it makes you wonder whether what is inside really matters or whether a good engine is of no use in deadbeat car. It discloses to you both pointlessness and the importance of a successful career. It touches the ups and downs of suicides, shows destroyed families, friendships, things that should matter, but somehow they don’t very much, in contemporary society. It shows you a lot for such a little book. It won’t tell you whether (your) life makes sense, which is a question everybody in a society where there is no need to struggle for life asks themselves eventually. That is the main task everybody has to solve in a directionless civilization. In the world where one can’t make a difference, in the world Everyman (and everyman) lives. No book can give you a correct answer and this one poses many questions (and certain amount of melancholy rising from them).
It is a glance at a life which is as useful and as empty as any other. A life which has its meaning as long as one doesn’t have a time to think about it. It tells a story which could make you think about all those things you don’t want to think about for your mental health’s sake. But it is not persuasive. It just opens the door. It is like a picture, nicely painted picture which can just please you by its colours, as well as take you as deep into life (and death) matters as you can stand.
© Josef Fiser November 2007

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