I wanted to throw in my two cents about the new Roth, too--just because Rhian works at the bookstore, she got to have it first. I just finished it and must agree with everything she said...and reiterate her admission of being at a loss. It's hard to comprehend how such a brief, direct piece of work can be about so many things--among them death, sex (of course), the role of literature in a debased culture, the role of the critic in literature, the role of the biographer to his subject. The imagination, the ego; desire and debasement. Bush. September 11th. Arrogance. Impotence.
One thing Rhian didn't mention, and which struck me powerfully about this book, is how completely it is a sequel to The Ghost Writer (and I think Ed, in the comments of Rhian's post, is right--it was the first Zuckerman book). That novel and this one are bookends to Zuckerman's career; they are written in the same style, feature the same characters (though Lonoff is presented only as a memory), and are the products of the same narrative approach: there is the supposedly objective reality that Zuckerman presumes to show us, and the imagined one which serves as its doppelganger (the same role Zuckerman plays, for Roth).
This time, though, Zuckerman can't control that imagined reality--he's losing his mind, and with it his grip on the narrative. He is dissolving, coming in and out of focus like Hamlet's father outside the castle in Elsinore (and surely it's from Hamlet that this title comes--the twice-repeated stage direction that ushers that harbringer of bad tidings off the stage.) Zuckerman's a ghost because he's disappearing; he's a ghost because he will soon lose all influence over his place in the world, his legacy, what his work means, what his life means.
There are all sorts of wonderful goodies here--the return of Amy Bellette as a terminally ill old woman in a shabby apartment filled with mementoes of her five years with Lonoff; Zuckerman's bewilderment at the changes wrought in New York since he last saw it more than a decade before; angry young Democrats speaking in blogger-ese; the dull details of Zuckerman's incontinence, and the embarrassing confidence of the doctor who tries to cure him.
But ultimately the big deal here is what Rhian has already mentioned--Roth's prose, which is stunning in its clarity and simplicity, its erudition and sophistication. This is not a contradiction: Roth is a writer who makes you feel like a genius. His prose is a vessel far larger than it appears; it's infinitely capacious but you can fold it up and put it in your pocket.
I liked Roth when I was a teenager, and followed him (not without dismay) through his period of marital strife, sexual angst, and identity madness (The Counterlife and Operation Shylock have melded, in my memory, into one big brilliant mess), and emerged into outright worship beginning with his move to the country and publication of American Pastoral, which Rhian and I both read at the hospital in the exhausting days right after our older son was born. The man has been on a holy tear ever since, and long may it last.