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The Dying Animal by Philip Roth
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Apr 01, 10

bookshelves: novel
Read from March 29 to 31, 2010, read count: 1

I read it in one day. The usual from Roth: articulate, provocative, and lots of psychological analysis, "the unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all." (p. 72)

Roth brings back David Kepesh, a character from his least ambitious period, the 1970's, who [though this passage is Kepesh talking about his friend George:] "feels pure only in his transgressions." (p. 75) Kepesh was the guy who turned into a gigantic breast after thinking about them all day for 20 years. Here, Kepesh is still just as libidinous before, the Rothian hero torn between his intellectual goals and his obsession with the female body. Kepesh meets his match in Consuela Castillo, a 24-year old student of his. She is his foil: she is all body and he is all brains. Kepesh has been seducing students since the 1960's but he has never seen anyone as perfectly erotic as she and his whole life becomes a shambles, leading to three years of depression and obsession over her after the relationship ends.

Consuela bewitches Kepesh--the man who refused to fall in love, to be "tied down" or monogamous--like no one ever has. She is the embodiment of feminine sexuality to him, described as "big," "tall," "with perfect breasts," and "perfect buttocks" and "black, black hair." "Like a great athlete or a work of idealized sculptural art or an animal glimpsed in the woods, like Michael Jordan...she'd done it through the simplicity of physical splendor." (p. 124)

The Dying Animal is Roth's take on the Sexual Revolution, having already commented on McCarthyism (I Married a Communist), the impeachment of Bill Clinton (The Human Stain), and the Vietnam War (American Pastoral) in his trio of books just preceding the Dying Animal. Roth seems to have realized that he had taken on the role as national commentator, an old man who had seen some of the most rapid changes in human history.

Roth gives us two takes on the Sexual Revolution ("this milk-and-honey society of free-market sex" p. 42): the first is Kepesh, who obviously was shocked by it (being born in 1930), thrilled by it, and permanently changed by it, leaving his wife and kids for a life of "emancipated manhood" and independence, sleeping with countless women over the succeeding decades. He, however, unknowingly gets a joke in at the expense of the sluttish. "Today, the carefree sexual conduct of the well-bred girls in my class is, as far as they know, warranted by the Declaration of Independence, an entitlement that requires of them little if any courage to utilize and that it is in harmony with the pursuit of happiness as conceived of at Philadelphia in 1776...the uninhibited everything...they take for granted." (p.52-3) He wants them to be grateful! "There were two strains to the turbulence: the libertarianism extending orgiastic permission to the individual and opposed to the traditional interests of the community...[and:] the communal righteousness about civil rights and against the war, the disobedience whose moral prestige devolves through Thoreau. And the two strains interconnecting made the orgy difficult to discredit." (p. 55) This, of course, coming from a man dead serious about such a cause, is funny. "People fifteen or twenty years younger than I, the privileged beneficiaries of the revolution, could afford to go through it unconsciously." Kepesh revolts against the family like the rest of the West. "When I was growing up...one was a thief in the sexual realm. You "copped" a feel. You stole sex. You cajoled, begged, flattered, insisted--all sex had to be struggled for...against the will of the girl." (p. 66) In other words, he hasn't changed, but women have. "That a...girl should volunteer, without endless importuning, to...commit the sex act would have confused me."

Of course, the rest of the 20th century results from this liberation. Once premarital sex is okay, all sex is okay: "...now even gays want to get married...the gays are militant: they want marriage and they want openly to join an army and be accepted. The two institutions I loathed. And for the same reason: regimentation." (p.68) "Sex [is better than anything else:] because it is based...in the flesh that is born and the flesh that dies...[sex is not corruption, everything else is.:] Sex is...the revenge on death." (p. 69, of all pages, tee hee) You have to keep in mind that this is Kepesh, not Roth, although I'll admit that gets hard when he's seemingly said the same thing in The Human Stain (through Faunia Farley, not his alter ego Zuckerman).

Kepesh hates marriage. When his son gets a girl pregnant, he advises him that "he hadn't to marry her. This wasn't 1901. If she was determined to have the baby...that was her choice, not his. Pro-choice I was, but that didn't mean pro her choice, not his. I urged him to remind her...that, at the age of twenty-one and just graduating from college, he...didn't intend in any way to be responsible for a child. If...she wanted the responsibility all on her own, that was a decision made by her for herself alone." (p. 81) Roth pushes us to the raw, ugly consequences of total freedom, total independence, and total equality. The one thing Kepesh (and his friend George) don't want is love, "the eternal problem of attachment." (p. 105) "I'm not against [the affair with Consuela:] because it's disgusting. I'm against it because it's falling in love." (p. 99) Freedom is not a means to good (as Christianity has taught for 2000 years) but an end in itself, the summum bonum: "What is ridiculousness? Relinquishing one's freedom voluntarily...whoever gives his freedom away, whoever is dying to give it away...is a source of comedy throughout literature...the one who is free has dimension as a being." (p.104-5)

Roth shows us further consequences of the Sexual Revolution: "old girlfriends turn up...Some are already divorced numerous times and others have been so busy [with careers:] that they've not even had the opportunity to marry." (p. 106) Free sex does not mean happiness. Rather, it means unhappiness, especially for the women, the ones who have changed and been "liberated." What happens to them? They are abandoned once in them "everything has begun to slacken, to thicken," (p. 143) "a heavy past clinging to the present."

Roth's work, it has been argued, is about argument. For Roth, plot is conflict and conflict is argument. I find this most acute in this novel. "I'm a critic, I'm a teacher--didacticism is my destiny. Argument and counterargument is what history's made of. One either imposes one's ideas or one is imposed on. Like it or not, that's the predicament. There are always opposing forces, and so, unless one is inordinately fond of subordination, one is always at war." (p. 112) It seems Kepesh lives in the way he does as a means of justifying his decision to emancipate himself from his family and bear the scorn of the academic community for his seducing students.

The conservative rebuttal comes from, of all people, his son whom he abandoned. Kenny is 42, cheating on his wife after getting married against his father's wishes (Kepesh wanted his son to be "an emancipated male" too) and weighed down by his duties. "The wife is unhappy and angry about the girlfriend, the girlfriend is complaining and resentful of the wife, and the children are frightened and cry out in their sleep." (p. 85) This is the price of freedom, the price of libertinism--generations of dysfunction and childhoods full of misery. In our selfishness we have volunteered our babies to pay the price for our pleasure. Kenny excoriates his deadbeat father: "Do you know what it's like to hear your children cry? How could you know?...I protected you...I came to your defense, I stuck up for you. I had to, you were my father...But the sixties? The explosion of childishness, that vulgar, mindless, collective regression, and that explains everything and excuses it all? Can't you come up with any better alibi?" (p. 90) "The pain you caused her, and for what? So you could be 'free?'"

As usual, Roth shocks the reader with graphic and even deranged sexual practices [SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BE GROSSED OUT:], including irrumatio, and even Kepesh licking up Consuela's menstrual blood from her thighs. Roth, you can tell, is consciously trying to be vivid whenever possible. Would Kenny really vomit literally when his father invites him to his house? (p. 80) I'm not so sure. Would anyone eat their girlfriend's love letter like in Indignation? Probably not. Nevertheless, it gets pretty gross in here. "Most people bring to bed with them the worst of their biography." (p. 74)

Roth is, however, neither a pornographer nor a shock-jock (at least not in The Dying Animal, a novel about sex and large breasts). In fact, Roth makes good use of the more unprintable stuff in self-reference. Page 42: "Pornography...has a kick of about five or ten minutes before it becomes kind of comical." That's precisely what Roth does--you have to keep in mind that he's a Kafkan comedian. "Pornography is the aestheticizing of jealousy...why not aenesthetizing? Well, perhaps both...It's not just make-believe, it's patently insincere...you're an invisible accomplice in the act...my [pornography:] keeps the torment in." he continues.

Consuela develops--of all things--breast cancer at age 32 and has to have a mastectomy. When she hears this news, she runs to the man who appreciated her form more than anyone else--who could it be but the art critic? She spends New Years Y2K with Kepesh, and they watch "this nonevent made into a great event while Conseuela is here suffering the biggest event in her life." (p. 148) She is the dying animal, not the old man. "While the nightlong...manufactured childish hysteria unfolds on the TV screen about embracing the open-ended future in ways that mature adults, with their melancholy knowledge of a very limited future, cannot have." (p. 149) Consuela, it seems, is going to die soon. "If you're lucky..at the funeral you ease your pain by thinking that the person had a long life. It hardly makes extinction less monstrous...but it's the trick that we use to keep the metronomic illusion [that everything happens in its proper time:] intact." (p. 149)
"Getting old is unimaginable but to the aging...Consuela no longer measures time like the young, marking backward to when you started. Time for the young is always made up of what is past, but for Consuela time is now how much future she has left..." (p. 148) In other words, they are now in the same boat. "In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death." (p. 153)

The novel ends on a mysterious note, a bit like a short story, when after Kepesh's 156 page monologue, the person to whom he spoke replies, "If you go [to Consuela's place to comfort her:], you're finished." Who is this speaker? It can't be George because he dies in a terribly sad scene in the book. I assume it is another lover (what a horrible misuse of the word "love"), urging him not to fall in love. We never do find out if even Kepesh can resist attraction (or love, if you like) like that. It all depends on what you think love is.

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