The Dying Novel
After three good novels, Philip Roth reverts to his old sex-obsessions.
Jul 2, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 40 • By J. BOTTUM
THIS WILL NEVER DO. You can measure the failure of Philip Roth’s latest novel, The Dying Animal, by the comments on the back cover. There’s the blurb from the Times Literary Supplement that acclaims Roth’s three prior novels for the "radical individualism" of which they were, in fact, the greatest denunciation recent fiction has produced. And there’s the blurb from Threepenny Review that declares, "Beginning with American Pastoral in 1997, then moving on in 1998 with I Married a Communist, and continuing [in 2000] with The Human Stain, Philip Roth has engaged himself in a patriotic literary project that has no contemporary match in any field."
In other words, the blurbs on the jacket of his current book note that Roth had just finished with his previous books a trilogy of real passion about American history and the human condition. They weren’t perfect novels, by any means. American Pastoral told the story of "Swede" Levov and the destruction the 1960s wrought on his upper-middle-class life and family, ending with the extraordinary lines: "All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?" But along the way, the book suffered serious structural problems. I Married a Communist sagged badly in the middle. The Human Stain started out as a powerful fable of political correctness and race relations and wound down to something like a tired diatribe against the Clinton impeachment. But they were all three real books, worth arguing about—and arguing for, as though the now sixty-eight-year-old Roth were the last author left in America who still remembers what the novel is supposed to do.
What the blurbs on his latest novel are silent about is his latest novel itself, and you don’t have to read very far in The Dying Animal, a disastrous throwback to Roth at his worst, to understand the charity of that silence.
It’s like a bait-and-switch advertisement for radial tires: Roth hopes to lure the serious readers he regained with his American Trilogy into spending $23 for this 156-page retread—and those readers will want to register a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
Perhaps it’s damning enough simply to say that the hero of The Dying Animal is David Kepesh, who first appeared in The Breast (1972), Roth’s peculiar tale of a college professor who wakes up one morning to find he’s become, well, a giant breast. Kepesh reappeared in The Professor of Desire (1977), an account of his young days, pre-breast, in his parents’ borscht-belt hotel. But one could claim—not successfully, you understand, but at least one could claim—that there was something comically Kafkaesque about The Breast and something of an interesting Jewish coming-of-age story in The Professor of Desire.
The Dying Animal has no such claim to comedy or interest. Now in his seventies, Kepesh has reverted to a man and—apparently forgetting his days as a breast—become a talking head, discoursing about books and culture on radio and television. Through the novel he relates the story of his affair, a decade earlier, with an enormous-breasted Cuban woman named Consuela, forty years his junior. Their intense affair is related with the erotic frankness and funkiness at which Roth has always aimed, and it ends when Kepesh, raging with jealousy at the possibility that a younger man will steal Consuela, preemptively breaks away from her—and spends the next ten years bemoaning it.
But all comes right for Kepesh when all goes wrong for Consuela, who calls after ten years’ absence to say that she needs him to help her face the radical surgery she must have for—you saw it coming, didn’t you?—breast cancer. So off he goes at the novel’s conclusion to comfort his breastless mistress, with the promise that a man, even after a carefree life of sexual adventuring, can find happiness in a caring that evades, for a moment, sex. (I’m telling you exactly how The Dying Animal ends so you won’t actually have to read it.)