Friday, August 24, 2007

Everyman by Philip Roth, a photo tip, and an itchy lizard

Everyman by Philip Roth
Copyright 2006
Vintage Fiction
182 pages

"You can weather anything," Phoebe was telling him, "even if the trust is violated, if it's owned up to. Then you become life partners in a different way, but it's still possible to remain partners. But lying - lying is cheap, contemptible control over the other person. It's watching the other person act on incomplete information - in other words, humiliating herself."

How he wished she could scald him in that lava now.

It wasn't till I finished the book Everyman that I realized I had no idea whether or not the protagonist had a name. Did he? Or was he "Everyman" in the sense of not even having a name, just an unnamed person, someone who could be any person you've known or avoided or loved, possibly ending in pain? I flipped back through the book and found no indication that I'd overlooked his moniker, but I can't be certain. It's hard to believe that didn't jump out at me.

To be honest, there isn't anything about the book that's particularly memorable or wonderful. Everyman is a book about aging, regret, loss, and loneliness.

Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre.

It's the story of one man who has made many mistakes and now - with his health failing him, about to enter the hospital for the 7th time in 7 years - confronts the reality that even if he has stayed young inside, he can never again repeat those same mistakes - chiefly, the error of not hanging onto the one, steady woman who truly cared. Now, nobody is interested in the gray-haired, wrinkled, declining old man who is left on his own and who has determined that the recreation he looked forward to for so many years hasn't fulfilled him at all in his retirement.

I know I saw a review of this book somewhere. Who else has recently read it? I can't find the review! I remember seeing the word "terrifying". While I didn't find it terrifying, there's no doubt that the trials of old age are clearly delineated: loss of health, decline in appearance, loneliness - especially for those who have made mistakes that generated rifts between the aged and their loved ones - difficulty finding a purpose or even a reason to keep going . . . horrors. Okay, maybe it is a bit terrifying. If the author had a purpose, I think it might be to say, "Stop, now. Evaluate your life and treat those you love with care, so that when your time comes you'll have fewer regrets." It's also possible that Roth meant to show how our scattered American families almost ensure isolation for the elderly.

But, it's pretty dull and definitely a total downer. I'll read more Philip Roth because I do think his writing has a comfortable flow. Everyman is the kind of book you can whip through in a few hours (assuming your head isn't pounding, which mine was). I wouldn't call it a "masterpiece" (as did Joseph O'Neill of The Atlantic Monthly, in one of the cover blurbs), but I think the author made some very astute observations about issues troubling the elderly and that he has a grasp of language that makes the book very readable. I'm going to put it on my "recommended" list because I don't think it's so awful that it's worth going out of your way to avoid, but be advised that the subject matter is pretty depressing.

3/5 - decent writing, blah story

Photo Tip of the Week:

Since it's Friday . . . it's photo tip time!!! Only one tip, today, and it's a simple one. But, I believe it's very important:

Ignore the naysayers. By that, I mean that you should be willing to experiment and don't let people tell you not to bother trying to capture an image that grabs your interest. Here's my example - and, please bear in mind that this is not necessarily a fabulous photo, but one that tells the story:

This is one of the first photos I took - snapped with my little Kodak Instamatic while on vacation. The back of the photo says, "Signiture Rock, Geurnsey, Wyoming". Obviously, I didn't know how to spell at the age of 9. Beyond that, the story behind this photo has always stuck with me. A brand new camera went with me on vacation in 1972. We drove to Wyoming and walked along deep crevices worn into the sandstone by wagon wheels during the massive movement of settlers to the American West, the so-called "Trail of Tears".

This particular "rock" (a former cliff?) was covered with inscriptions - names, initials, dates - and surrounded by a chain-link fence. I love history and so did my mother and father. We all walked around in awe, reading the inscriptions carved into the rock. And, then I decided to take a photo.

"That won't work," everyone said. "Don't bother. You won't be able to photograph that. The fence will get in the way."

Ignoring my entire family, I poked the lens through an opening in the fence and snapped - one photo and only one. When the picture came back, I was triumphant. It worked! Even my preternaturally optimistic father had discouraged me, but he raised his eyebrows and admitted that he was wrong when he told me not to try. The photo captured just a tiny bit of the rock, but it was enough to show how travelers carved their names and the date they passed through (some actually included the month and day - many, simply the year) into the sandstone.

There's obviously plenty of great advice worth listening to or reading, but that lesson has stuck with me. Never let anyone tell you not to bother trying. Even your mistakes can teach you something about photography, so go ahead . . . snap photos of things that interest you and ignore anyone who tells you not to try.

Book-wise:

The RIP stack is growing. Just this afternoon, a book about haunted castles arrived in my mailbox. Wahoo! I hope to post a list of RIP Challenge books, soon.

I visited the library, early this week, to return some CDs and peruse the sale corner. While there, I found a book copyrighted in 1977 - a bit abused, but with the perfect theme for this week: Blizzard. Ha. I snatched that sucker up and I'm enjoying it immensely. What could be more fun than to read about a vicious snowstorm (blamed, of course, on the Soviets - everything was apparently their fault, in the 70's) when it's baking outside?

Oh, maybe sweating to take a photo of a tiny, itchy little lizard hatchling - another lousy photo, but he was down inside the monkey grass and it was so darned hot that I only stayed outside for a few minutes before deciding it was heat stroke vs. the perfect flaky lizard photo:

This must be a recently hatched lizard - even newer than the others I've photographed, because he was a mere 1" long in the body, not even 1/4" in width. He was itching like crazy, poor thing. When he was too far down in the monkey grass to even attempt to photograph, I still watched him scratching and nipping at the skin peeling off his back. What an utterly fascinating thing to observe.

Off to read. Wishing all of you a delightful weekend.

Bookfool

17 comments:

  1. I think I can safely skip it. I get to watch some of the terrors of growing old with my clients and oh yeah, not getting any younger myself. They do say that youth is wasted on the young.....

    Poor itchy lizard! Nice photo tip.

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  2. Carrie,

    So true. I think you're definitely safe skipping. I'll look for more of his books, but this one was just blah.

    Good news for the lizard: he was pretty much done shedding his skin within an hour. I kept peeking out through the kitchen window. Of course, that means I didn't have much time to capture him on film (he thought I was terribly noisy, crunching on dried leaves, apparently - the moment I got near enough to snap, I frightened him off), but it was still a a unique experience. I've never seen a shedding lizard, before.

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  3. Neat picture of the lizard. I didn't know they shed their skin. See, you learn something every day.

    I think Joy (Thoughts of Joy) read EVERYMAN and didn't like it.

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  4. That book sounds horribly dreary...I don't think I'd like it very much, but it sounds like it may be up someone's alley, just not mine. I've been meaning to read some Roth though, I have heard good things about him!

    I love that photo! That's one of the things that I used to love about the pre-digital days...the excitement of getting back a roll of film and seeing how successful you were with the photos you took. You were obviously a successful photographer from the beginning ;) That's one of the joys of digital photography too though, you can see right away if you've gotten your shot and if you haven't, try again!

    Creepy lizard shot! I can honestly say I've never seen a peeling lizard.

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  5. Lynne,

    I didn't know lizards shed their skins, either. I've seen a snake shedding its skin, though, and once found a skin without the snake in it. Maybe it's a reptile thing.

    I can't say I blame Joy a bit, if she hated the book. It has its merits, but I'm only recommending it because I don't think the writing is horrendous. It's so dull, I probably ought to change my mind about that.

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  6. Chris,

    I don't think you'd like it, although you would probably have loads of things to say about how we treat our elderly and the psychological ramifications of growing old and infirm. :)

    I used to love getting a role of film back, too! Believe me, I have taken plenty of awful photographs in my day - still do. I once sat at my mother-in-law's table, sorting the good from the bad, and she said, "Oh, so that's how you do it! I thought all your pictures were good!" Nope. Part of the key is to take a LOT and throw out the bad. I experiment quite a bit; now, I can just hit "delete" when something doesn't work. Love that!

    That lizard really caught me off-guard - I've never seen one peeling, either, and I thought, "What on earth has he got on his back?" Then, I climbed on the kitchen chair (I'm sure I'm a hoot to live with) and saw that it was skin on his back. And, of course, I dashed out to grab the camera.

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  7. I like your picture of the inscriptions on the rock! Good tip today. I like taking weird angles. Many of them don't turn out but some do and they're often more interesting.

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  8. Nat,

    Thanks. Unique angles are something I seldom think to try. Of course, most of my photos are of animals and I'm often in a hurry to capture them at all, but you've given me food for thought. Now I want to go play!

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  9. That was me! I recently reviewed it and called it terrifying. I think it was particularly scary for me because while I'm much younger than the protagonist (and no, he didn't have a name) I already have scary health problems. I kept thinking, while reading, what if I have 50 or 60 years of more and more health difficulties left??? Terrifying.

    But now I'm reading Helpless by Barbara Gowdie, about a pedophile, and Everyman is so tame compared to reading the thoughts of this guy alternating with the thoughts of the little girl he's about to kidnap (I think).

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  10. Hi Dewey!

    Thanks! I've dashed back over to your blog to comment. I can relate to the terror of having your body let you down. That was definitely a frightening aspect to the book, although I think the idea of alienating oneself to the point that you become completely isolated by the time you reach that age is also horrifying. Anyway, a sobering book - not a fun one.

    I'll avoid reading Helpless!!!

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  11. I really agreed with your summing up of this book: good writing, but blah story. I'm going to give Roth another shot but not for awhile.

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  12. Eva,

    Thanks; I feel exactly the same. I'll give him another chance, but not right away.

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  13. I think I won't give Roth a try until I read a positive review of one of his books on your blog. I definitely don't want to read Everyman. Why read about what I'm experiencing?! Actually, it's not so bad so far, but I'm just starting in on the downward slope.

    Very cool picture of the lizard. I even called my husband over to see it. He was awed, too.

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  14. I've never tried any of Roth's books and from your review, I don't think I'll start with Everyman. Any recommendations? I'm now plowing through two books: Jane Austen Book Club and Literacy & Longing in LA - two books on my favourite topic: books! Yay!

    Those little lizards are everywhere in Singapore but I've never seen one shed its skin yet. Cool shot!

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  15. I think it's a beautiful photo
    thank you

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  16. Don't know if I'd read that either.

    Poor liz!

    I love all your pics!

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  17. Booklogged,

    I think it's worth skipping and I have to agree - if you're going to read a book on aging, it seems better to stick to a more positive story. We need all the hope we can get. LOL

    Glad you and your husband liked the lizard. I think it was a stroke of good luck that I looked out the window and happened to see him as he was shedding his skin - it didn't take long at all for him to rid himself of all those itchy flakes.

    Indigo,

    Everyman was my first Philip Roth book, so I don't have any personal recommendations, although The Plot Against America and The Human Stain are the two that seem to be the most recommended. Books on books! I'm kind of envious!! LOL

    Seeing a lizard shed its skin was a new experience for me; they're all over the place here, too. Thanks. I think that was a truly lucky moment!

    Cathrine,

    Thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

    Chris,

    I think it's worth skipping. Fortunately for the lizard, his skin was shed very quickly - it was pretty much all gone within an hour.

    Thank you very much. :)

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