Thursday, December 15, 2005

Me on Philip Roth

Yes, he comes across as a petulant, whiny little bitch in interviews -- see Guardian link below -- but he often writes a ripping narrative.

Some further thoughts I posted on a forum about the three Kepesh books:

Yesterday afternoon and this morning I read the most amazing short novel: Philip Roth's The Dying Animal. It is an absolutely extraordinary 156-page work that grips you from beginning to end and I think talking about it at length would turn me into James Lipton: "Buy it. Read it. Set it aside. Read it again. It. Will. Change. Your. Life."

A little background.

Roth's character, David Kepesh, is a horny literature professor who was first introduced in Roth's superb take-off on Kafka's "Metamorphosis," The Breast, as a man who wakes up one morning and finds he has changed into a huge tit with a permanently erect nipple: a thing of pure sensation. With even less functionality than Gregor Samsa, Kepesh tries to think his way through this transformation, how he became this trembling mass of adipose tissue that constantly yearns to be touched and stroked. Is he subconsciously punishing himself for the happiness he has found with Claire, his amply-endowed girlfriend? Or is it possible that the study of literature has so disconnected himself from life that he has turned himself into his own work of art -- has he "out-Kafkaed Kafka"? It's a terrifically literary sex comedy, a disquisition on the dual war between mind and flesh.

Was he ever really a breast or was it all a dream? Had there just been that one book, then I guess the answer would be yes he was and no it wasn't. In two subsequent books, set before and after the first one, he's a full-fledged human being, in which case I guess the whole breast transformation was just a bizarre nightmare. But rationality is beside the point. 

Roth returned to Kepesh a few years later in The Professor of Desire, which serves as a kind of prequel to the first book, tracing Kepesh's early sexual adventures, a disastrous marriage, his constant search for some kind of happiness, and his growing sense of mortality. I re-read it this week and I found it a rather affectless novel until the arrival of Claire, who among other things has a terrific rack, and who signals some sort of temporary stability in Kepesh's life, however short-lived. Kepesh’s attention to women rises and falls entirely with her sexual appeal; when that goes, so does she and so does he. He's a kind of vampiric thing who fucks to live; pure libido in many if not most ways.

What started out as a kind of warped comedy turns hellish in The Dying Animal. Kepesh is now in his sixties, a much-adored teacher who regularly scores with students once he’s no longer their teacher. His great conquest here is the beautiful Consuela, who not only has the standard fantastic rack, but also becomes his object of jealousy, much to his surprise given the 40 years difference in their ages. Because of rather than in spite of Kepesh’s age, Consuela becomes his submissive object, which in turn makes him a slave to his lust - which is what he has always been. Kepesh and Consuela reminded me at times of Wiley and the coed in Harold Brodkey’s great story  “Innocence” - both are stories about who possesses who. Kepesh desires Consuela’s breasts, and for Consuela that knowledge gives her power.

You could, I think, say both are as empowered by this furious relationship as they are weakened and drained by it.

Kepesh is a total user who has wrecked everything around him - his ex-wife, his son, every old girlfriend -- but Roth doesn’t hate him and neither do we, or neither do I. He’s presented as someone who lacks morality and conscience and knows it -- lacks it because the pursuit of a fresh orgasm with a fresh piece of tail is always greater.

Just as Roth’s Letting Go is one of those undisciplined messes people write in their youth, The Dying Animal is the kind of perfectly sharp gem that writers - if they’re smart enough - write when they’re older, when they’ve finessed their craft down to pure precision. It begins with pursuit and heat and it ends with deterioration and death.

The three books are, in total, a meditation on sex and death, how one is a temporary effort to stave off the other, which of course won’t be staved off.


I finished Roth's 1988 autobiography, The Facts, last week and found it dull. I think Roth was bored writing it and I was bored reading it. He was bored writing it because he had to tell the truth and couldn't lie -- and, also, because his fictionalized past is more interesting than his real one. He, of course, knows this much -- and basically shows his hand by bringing on his fictional substitute Nathan Zuckerman at the end, who castigates his creator for writing it.

It's an interesting book on reflection, though, for the simple reason that it shows the sheer presence Roth's first wife played in his life. He hates her and yet, from beyond the grave, she continues to torture his mind and fiction; he details all her wrongs against him, he details his hatred for her, and yet in the end he wonders if he has ever done her justice, if in fact he doesn't owe her a lot. I didn't know she was the inspiration for Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good -- maybe the reason that characterization didn't really come as credible is because he was just to close too her, didn't have enough distance perhaps.

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