"Life can't be impugned for any failure to trivialise people," says Murray Ringold to Nathan Zuckerman as he begins telling the story of his brother's downfall that comprises 1998's I Married a Communist. "You have to take your hat off to life for the techniques at its disposal to strip a man of his significance and empty him totally of his pride." Human betrayal is at the heart of the maelstrom that drags down Ira Ringold in that book; alongside it, the poisonous lie of ideology on both ends of the political spectrum, and a Shakespearean flaw in the central character. The same forces are at work, in different configurations, in American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000), the other parts of Roth's great "American Trilogy", together with the choking effect of American conceptions of propriety, and the loneliness that pervades human relationships. Here is Swede Levov, the protagonist of American Pastoral, apostrophising his terrorist daughter: "There is no protest to be lodged against loneliness — not all the bombing campaigns in history have made a dent in it. The most lethal of manmade explosives can't touch it. Stand in awe not of Communism, my idiot child, but of ordinary, everyday loneliness."
Elsewhere in Roth, it's old age, especially the physical facts of it, that brings his characters to their knees. In Everyman (2006), the protagonist dies during his seventh annual major operation: "Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre." In his 1991 memoir, Patrimony, Roth describes attending to his father as the latter dies, slowly, from a brain tumour:
My father looked for a long time at the tray on which they'd served him another dinner of cold consommé and yoghurt and a chocolate drink and Jell-O and a Popsicle. It was impossible to guess from his lost, unfocused gaze what, if anything, he was thinking about. I was thinking of the fingernail that had been aggrandising the hollows of his skull for a decade, the material as obdurate and gristly as he was, that had cracked open the bone behind his nose and, with a stubborn, unrelenting force just like his, had pushed tusklike through into the cavities of his face.
And what of Nathan Zuckerman himself, minus a prostate, impotent since American Pastoral at least, incontinent and in nappies by the time of The Human Stain? With all these techniques for humbling a man at life's disposal, the reader, approaching Roth's new novella, entitled The Humbling, might simply wonder, "Well, what's it going to be this time?"