Roth's 'The Dying Animal': Lust? Liberty? Love?

On Books

May 13, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Philip Roth is doing it again -- invoking the vocabulary and sexual explicitness that scandalized readers in his "Portnoy's Complaint" and elsewhere. He does it skillfully. But it's still a shock to many readers to see the words, predominantly of four letters, so freely in print.

Whether one takes that usage to be a dramatic device or a naughty indulgence, to be distracted by it would be to miss the satisfactions of a brilliantly accomplished book, coming from a premier American novelist: "The Dying Animal" (Houghton Mifflin, 156 pages, $23).

In one sense, this volume is an exploration and celebration of the revolution of the 1960s -- sexual, certainly, but far more consequential than just that. "This was not a pretty revolution, taking place on the dignified theoretical plane," says David Kepesh, the book's narrator and central character. "This was a puerile, preposterous, uncontrolled, drastic mess, the whole society in a huge brawl." For Roth's purposes, Kepesh is its heir and prophet. He is essentially the same character who dominates Roth's earlier "The Breast" and "The Professor of Desire."

It is a book about life and death. About the evanescence of one and the finality of the other. The essence of both is to be utterly alone. For Kepesh, aloneness is experienced as the insatiable emptiness of narcissism.

Narcissism, in the form of celebratory self-indulgence, played a pervasive role in the '60s revolution. Perhaps better than anyone else writing, Roth understands the emptiness of that hollow imitation of love: conquest, acquisition, exploitation, desertion. His Kepesh is a user of women -- ingratiating, insensitive and uncaring.

He lies to people who he knows care about him, including his wife, whom he treated abominably, and their son, who grows up to hate him. His commanding desire is to have the unobtainable -- and thus is vulnerable to obsession. That which he can have is cast off.

Eight years before the main narrative begins, Consuela Castillo, age 24, entered 62-year-old Kepesh's class in practical criticism in a New York City university. He lives in New York, where he teaches and is a highly visible broadcast culture guru. She is from Bergen County, N.J., living with her prosperous Cuban parents. He was immediately drawn to her -- more intensely than to the many other young women he had been excited by over his life.

He had slept with students before -- but punctiliously postponed that until after he was teaching them. He experienced Consuela lushly, sensually and finally completely obsessively -- with particular focus on the delights of her breasts, a familiar Roth theme. His feelings for her come perilously close to love --which is, of course, the one emotional transaction that his like can never accomplish.

Kepesh's obsession is brilliantly, deftly sketched: "The jealousy. That poison. And unprovoked. ... But when the rare day passes that I'm able to discipline myself enough not to speak to her, not to call her, not to flatter her, not to sound false, not to resent what she unknowingly does to me, it's worse."

She is also -- though very differently -- captivated. Roth writes of her: "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."

Their affair lasted for a little more than a year and a half. They seldom went out in public. Ultimately, she angrily broke it off because he would not go to her graduation party at her parents' house.

Roth manages Kepesh's intellectualizing of his hollow licentiousness with grace and irony. Late in the book, he addresses the reader: "You too need the lecture on the childishness of coupling. Of course it's childish. Family life is, today more than ever, when the ethos is created substantially by the children. It's even worse when there are no children around. Because the childish adult replaces the child. Coupled life and family life bring out everything that's childish in everyone involved."

A page later, writing of his closest friend, a man of a crippled character much like his own, Kepesh says: "Marriage at its best is a sure-fire stimulant to the thrills of licentious subterfuge. But my friend's need was for something more basic to his safety than the adulterer's daily drama of fording a river of lies. That wasn't the kick he remarried for, even though once he was a husband again he almost immediately resumed pursuing the old delights."

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