I have always found myself inexplicably drawn to books about regret, lost opportunities, death, and dying. Perhaps there is something cathartic about reading of other people’s regrets, regrets that are disturbingly close to home yet safely ensconced in the realm of fiction. Perhaps it is the ritual of a young person trying to pre-empt and avoid the dark and looming future – as if reading about them will prevent me from falling into similar traps of life.
But what Philip Roth’s deceptively short and simple novel Everyman tells us, is that no one plans to fall into these traps in the first place. In fact, these characters that we see struggling to come to terms with their past are struggling precisely because their life did not turn out as they had imagined it would. It is a struggle for answers to things that sometimes simply have no explanation.
2016 has been a year of major global events, disappointments and uncertainties – victories to some, but tragedies to many others. Someone in the future might look back and point at this or that incident as a turning point, but just like the Everyman as he is running the course of his life, we are caught in the present, swept by the tide of events, and as clueless as the next person about how things might pan out in the years to come. What of the individual’s place in all this turmoil? The ordinary life plods along. Everyman is indeed a depressing book to reflect upon at the close of the year, but for me it is the kind of reminder I need in order to harness the burst of energy that the new year unfailingly affords. After all, is not the new year a time for forgiveness and perhaps absolution?
‘Everyman’ refers to the 15th-century play, in which an unprepared sinner is told by Death of his imminent judgement day. Before his maker, his friends and family leave him, as does his wealth, beauty and knowledge – what is left are his good deeds alone. Roth’s novel opens with the burial of the nameless Everyman, surrounded by a smattering of people connected to him in life. Once the mourners depart, however, Roth’s Everyman recounts his life and makes his case for sympathy while reconciling with his own actions.
What is remarkable about the book is the utter ordinariness of the Everyman and his utterly unremarkable, and hence relatable, life. Never named throughout the novel, his life could belong to any one of us. His major afflictions – failed marriages, loneliness, a lost passion for painting, and failing health – could apply to anyone in some form or another. Thrice married, much of the Everyman’s wistfulness seems to stem from allowing his second marriage to fail due to his philandering actions. He is never able to account to himself for leaving a reliable, kind wife and mother of his beloved daughter for a woman half his age. It is lust that destroyed him, but even in his old age it is lust that keeps him going. Instead of trying to explain away his actions, he repeatedly reminds the reader of how grateful he is for what he has – his forgiving and unfailingly kind daughter Nancy and Howie, the older brother that has cared for him and been his inspiration since childhood.
In the throes of his ailing body – “eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life” – Roth’s Everyman clings to memories of his blissful childhood helping his father out in his jewellery repair shop. After leaving the residential home he moves to the shore in an attempt to recreate his childhood days spent surfing at sea. We learn the comforting role memories play in old age and sickness – when the Everyman learns of colleagues in hospital or dying, he calls them, and recounts their old times at work, sharing laughter over old jokes. He tides over the agony of his multiple angioplasties by remembering the watches and clocks his father used to sell, recalling their images in detail until the procedures were over.
“Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre” – the Everyman is surrounded by the dead and dying, and is preoccupied in most of the book with his own steady march towards the end. It seems to be a battle of mind over matter, as he tries to sustain himself with memories, ruminations, and his passion for painting while his body fades away. There is frustration – he is intensely jealous of his older brother’s good health despite his devotion to him – but there is also a gradual sense of resignation and newfound appreciation for what he has left. Eventually we come to the realization that it is all well and good to find explanations, but as he tells Nancy, and Nancy repeats to his spirit in the grave, “There’s no remaking reality. Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way.”
Everyman is not a cheerful read, but the kind that makes you buried deep in rumination for a long time. The kind that makes you stop to consider where your life is going and shakes the foundations of your values to test their integrity.