With its strap-on dildos, cat-o'-nine-tails, transsexuals, hysterical lesbians and three-in-a-bed romps, the latest product to roll out of the Philip Roth fiction factory is an old man's masturbatory fantasy which, wrapped in a smart dust jacket, the equivalent of the pornographer's brown paper bag, purports to be a novella of late-middle-aged existential crisis - at least during its more serious moments. (In its less serious moments - and I still can't decide whether these are intentional or not - it has all the aesthetic surprise of the latest upload on YouPorn.)
The Humbling shares most of the preoccupations of Roth's recent fiction: the sorrows and loneliness of old age, illness, the poignancy of lingering sexual desire, and so on. It clearly wants to be read as a companion piece to his impressive late works about the inescapable senselessness of death. Yet it is at times so ridiculous, so stylistically careless and shabbily executed, the characters so thin and artificial, that you think, at first, the whole thing must be an elaborate joke or parody, or else an exercise in character assassination - a novel written by one of Philip Roth's avenging doubles, hypothetical selves or alter egos, whose sole mission is to besmirch the reputation of the celebrated American author we know as "Philip Roth".
The central character, the well-named Simon Axler, is a once-successful theatre and film actor. At the age of 65, he has lost all confidence in his abilities and can no longer perform on stage, though he can still perform in the bedroom. "He'd lost his magic," we are told. "His impulse was spent." Humbled by this loss, Axler retreats from the world, like Nathan Zuckerman in previous Roth novels, and we first encounter him living alone in rural isolation, in upstate New York. Abandoned by his wife, he inhabits a strange, sad twilight of yearning and regret. He has recently had a short stay at a psychiatric hospital and he thinks continuously of suicide, as did Mickey Sabbath, another broken-down and dispossessed old man of the theatre created by Roth.
Most of what we know about Axler is told or asserted rather than shown or animated. He is recognisably a Roth Man, not least in his penchant for anal sex, but he has scarcely any backstory, no Newark boyhood to recall fondly, no overbearing Jewish father, no sense of the textures of a long life lived purposefully. The novel is fast-paced, hectic, erratically and gratuitously plotted, with characters being hurried on to the set to perform affectlessly before being packed away, like so many props.
There is none of the thick layering of information for which even Roth's short novels are renowned. Nor is there even much of interest on the craft of acting, as one would have expected from Roth, who is usually nothing if not fastidious in his detailing. Axler does not even think like an actor; he does not have an actor's consciousness, as Zuckerman has the consciousness of a writer. Because we do not know Axler before his humbling or see scenes from his life as an actor even in retrospect, because we do not hear others describing his memorable performances, we cannot feel the pathos of his fall. The novel is told from his point of view and so we have only his word that he was once good. That's not enough.
Roth has long been a writer of extremes, with a boisterous stand-up comedian's inclination to taunt and outrage. He knows no limits, which is part of the fun of reading him. He is also a kind of ventriloquist who loves doing all the voices. This is why there is so much dialogue in his novels: John Updike used to complain of Roth's "blocks of talk", of the monologues that spilled across many pages, of the life histories that were regurgitated as characters unburdened themselves. In this novel, there is also a lot of talk, but the characters tend to sound the same - even the women speak in the same punched, exclamatory, staccato rhythms as Axler.
For Roth, in his fiction, sex is an act both of supreme self-assertion and rebellion - of rebellion against bourgeois convention, against death itself. Sex simultaneously offers a release from and heightening of the self, a way to the truth. His lead men invariably seek to find a woman who is their equal in appetite in what Iago called "preposterous desires". This ideal woman is often subliterate or anti-intellectual, an immigrant such as the Croat Drenka Balich, from Sabbath's Theatre, on whose grave men would return long after her death to masturbate in memory of her astounding sexual capacities. She is the young Cuban beauty Consuela Castillo, a "masterpiece of volupté" who has an affair with the aged libertine David Kepesh in the affecting The Dying Animal. And, in The Humbling, she is Pegeen Stapleford, a full-figured, 40-year-old lesbian who begins an affair with Axler in defiance of her sexuality and her parents, old friends of the actor. The subplot is that Pegeen's long-time lesbian lover has decided to become a man. You'd never believe it.
It is Pegeen who introduces the dildos and whips into her sex life with Axler; he, in turn, introduces her to the penis. "It fills you up," she says, "the way dildos and fingers don't. It's alive. It's a living thing." Their sexual fantasies inevitably darken and deepen, and before too long they have picked up a woman named Tracy and hurried her into bed. Axler looks on as Pegeen straps on a dildo and violates Tracy, who has all the complexity of a piece of meat, in what is supposed to be a frenzy of need. How mechanically Roth manipulates his characters at this point, and how contemptuously! Even he seems conscious of this, because he belatedly allows Axler a moment of fellow feeling as he clunkingly "wondered what was going on in Tracy's mind". It's like asking what's going on in the mind of a character in a computer game, because Tracy is no more or less credible than that.
The Big Threesome is meant to illustrate how Pegeen's arrival has reawakened in Axler the desire once more to act, to become a player, if not on the stage, then at least in the world. He starts to dream of becoming a father, and one day takes a trip to a fertility expert in New York. You know nothing good will come of all this, nor does it.
Like the other lead men of Roth's late fiction, Axler is beguiled into believing that redemption is possible, even as his personal clock prepares to strike midnight. Fleetingly, sex and desire lift him from despond and offer the hope of one last, late flourishing, only for that hope to be extinguished by Pegeen's sudden departure. The Big Threesome has had a different effect on her: it has reminded her of what she's been missing.
Girls will be girls. So the wheel turns full circle and this feeble novel ends as it began, in an ecstasy of despair, with Axler, alone in his attic, staring down the barrel of a gun. Oh, go on, pull the trigger.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman.
Jonathan Cape, 140pp, £12.99