Sunday, 10 February 2013

Philip Roth: The Dying Animal

The David Kepesh of The Dying Animal is a divorced professor of literature, father to an estranged son, and a cultural critic on television for the past fifteen years, a position that makes him popular on campus, especially with his female students, attracted to his celebrity status. Kepesh knows better than to have sexual relationships with students, particularly because of subtle accusations of sexual harassment in the past. He’s smart enough to wait until the end of the year and then host a party at his flat, and wait for someone to spring into his trap. Usually there’s always a student willing to spring it.

No, this Kepesh isn’t very different from the other two, even if he seems different in some details. Above all he’s still animated by lust and a need to sate it, and he continues to get into predicaments because of his desires. Still this is a Kepesh at the end of his erotic odyssey, as the title implies. One thing I must give Philip Roth credit for is that he keeps coming up with new ways of addressing the never-ending and perhaps insurmountable problem between man and sex. In The Breast, Kapesh is at war with his own body when it turns into a gigantic erogenous zone of uncontrollable libido. This fantastic allegory gives way to a more realistic bildungsroman in The Professor of Desire, where Kepesh’s young, exciting, boundless expectations of sex collide with the grim and dreary realities he experiences in adulthood. In the final book of the trilogy Kepesh is fighting against old age, in two ways: one through reminiscence and nostalgia; and the other through continuing to seduce young women. He’s sixty-two when he starts a relationship with twenty-four-year-old Consuela Castillo, the daughter of prosperous Cuban expatriates living in Jersey.

Consuela is a beautiful, charming young woman who likes literature and art and worships culture. She’s not so much attracted to Kepesh’s physique as to his cultural authority and his acting as her gateway to a new world of aesthetic experiences in books, painting and music. Kepesh obliges her and becomes a sort of mentor for her, all the while aware of and commenting on the social rituals that dictate relationships:

I show her Kafka, Velázquez… why does one do this? Well, you have to do something. These are the veils of the dance. Don’t confuse it with seduction. This is not seduction. What you are disguising is the thing that got you there, the pure lust. The veils veil the blind drive. Talking this talk, you have a misguided sense, as does she, that you know what you’re dealing with.

Experience and disillusionment have made Kepesh a cynical observer of sex and relationships. He’s been with too many women, suffered too many heartbreaks and failed too many times to find the happiness of the fabled soul mate, to not have an unglamorous opinion of it: “Sex is all the enchantment required. Do men find women so enchanting once the sex is taken out? Does anyone find anyone of any sex that enchanting unless they have sexual business with them? Who else are you that enchanted by? Nobody.”

He’s less interested in the emotional aspects of sex than in the power that underlies it. For him sex is a struggle between submission and control, with the woman always triumphing no matter what the man thinks:

A boy submitting to her power, what does that amount to in a creature so patently desirable? But to have this man of the world submitting solely because of the force of her youth and her beauty? To have gained the total interest, to have become the consuming passion of a man inaccessible in every other arena, to enter a life she admires that would otherwise be closed to her – that’s power, and it’s the power she wants.

Besides Kepesh’s thoughts about his relationship with Consuela, the reader is also taken on a trip back in time to the 1960s, one of Kepesh’s favourite decades. Having come out of age in the 1940s he’s too late to be an active propeller of the sexual revolution, but his gaze is always alert when big changes are occurring in society. And Kepesh dissects the sixties for all the wondrous freedom they brought to young people in America and the fall of the last redoubt of Puritanism. “Age-old American story: save the young from sex. Yet it’s always too late. Too late because they’ve already been born,” he muses as he thinks of all the students, men and women, who started challenging fashion codes, sexual mores and being more open to a plurality of lifestyles. From this era Kepesh, however, didn’t learn just the finer aspects: he also absorbed the irresponsibility and selfishness of the time, which caused his marriage to derail when his wife got tired of his frequent cheating. The result is a son, now grown-up, who hates Kepesh for the anguish he allegedly caused his mother.

Kepesh sees sex as a force that is beyond man’s control and that ultimately makes him behave irrationally and even callously, part of human nature that can’t be reasoned with or subdued. “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex.” This goes against the values of his son, Kenny, who has absorbed instead all the conventional rules of behaviour. When Kenny impregnates a woman he feels like his world is going to end because that wasn’t in his plans. Kepesh reminds him that one of the fundamental tenets of American history is individual freedom and that no one can force him to marry her, to ruin his life because of her. But Kenny, who grew up hating everything his father stood for, is almost neo-Victorian regarding morals and is prepared to burden himself with an unhappy, unplanned marriage because it’s the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do.

And yet Kepesh too starts wrestling with his view of sexual relationships. After not seeing Consuela for several years, after they abruptly broke off their relationship, she contacts him to help her cope with her breast cancer: faced with the horror of disfigurement, she wants to be close to him again, the man who loved her body when it was perfect before it’s irremediably ruined forever. Against his instincts he starts getting deeply involved in her life again, finally showing a trace of vulnerability. Is this what makes him a dying animal, this signal that he’s softening? Although it’s tempting to hope that David Kepesh can meet some closure and happiness, it’s important to remember that many times happiness seemed to be right in front of him throughout the trilogy: with Birgitta in London, with Helen, his first wife, then with gentle Claire. Every time there were signs he could never be fully happy with either of them. Of course this is also the first time Kepesh is old so maybe that changes his perspective.

The David Kepesh trilogy is a curious, unbalanced, sometimes astute set of books. They’re Roth’s clearest statement on man/woman relationships, sex and the pursuit, or even existence, of happiness. They contain some of his best and worst writing. But more interesting is how they record Roth’s own evolution as a writer. The first Kepesh is very close to the ribald Alex Portnoy, perhaps his most famous character, whereas the second Kepesh mirrors the funny but tinged in melancholy observations of Nathan Zuckerman, whereas the third Kepesh seems to prefigure the decadence of Zuckerman from Exit Ghost and also exemplify Roth’s more restrained type of writing he acquired during the nineties. As a Roth fan, all Roth is essential Roth, but David Kepesh is not essential writing, in my humble, rather he helps clarify some aspects of his work.


  1. I have not read this but Kepesh sounds very interesting. Roth plays with similar themes and characters over and over again, yet the works do seem different and I never tire at what he does with these motifs.

    Case in point, some of the plot devices as well as Characters as you describe them here remind me of certain aspects of the The Human Stain.

    1. Brian, I don't remember a lot from The Human Stain, save the theme of racism and the fascinating double life of Coleman Silk. I liked reading it, it's one of his more mature novels.