The Dying Animal. (Book Reviews).
Eroticism has always been a part of Philip Roth's fiction, but until recently death has scarcely entered as a major subject, certainly not in the context of eros. In Sabbath's Theater (1995) and The Dying Animal (2001) both eros and thanatos figure prominently. Whether this reflects Roth's current preoccupations, a result perhaps of his own advancing age and past serious illnesses, I cannot say, though it would hardly surprise me if that were true. We have learned, however, not to make too close a connection between fiction and autobiography. Roth has been emphatic about that, as his surrogate, "Philip," says in Deception, referring to the critics:
"I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so if I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn't."
It's not likely that in The Dying Animal David Kepesh is Roth's surrogate. Resurrected from The Breast (1972), which is not mentioned, and The Professor of Desire (1977), which is only once alluded to, David Kepesh is close enough at 70, when the novel opens, to Roth's age (67); but almost everything else about him is not. Kepesh is a radio and television celebrity, a critic of culture and a part-time professor at a college in New York. Roth has long since given up teaching and was never a media star.
Kepesh likes to bring the students from his senior seminar in "Practical Criticism" to his apartment after their final exam, and it is then that he chooses the one he will sleep with. Long divorced from his (unnamed) wife and estranged from their only child, Kenny, who despises him, Kepesh has lived since the 1960s a life fully given to hedonism, or the unconstrained life of pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. "A rake among scholars, a scholar among rakes," he recounts his story to an unspecified listener, probably a woman, a current mistress, but hardly Dr. Spielvogel (in Portnoy's Complaint) or any other psychotherapist.
The story focuses mainly upon a Cuban-American beauty, Consuela Castillo, she of the beautiful breasts who was once Kepesh's student and later his lover. Kepesh digresses from time to time to recount his affairs with others, such as another former student, Carolyn Lyons, who enters his life again years afterwards with almost disastrous results during his affair with Consuela. This digression and others usefully put the story of his obsession with Consuela into perspective.
Throughout, Kepesh details and defends his hedonism, abetted by his friend, the Irish poet George O'Hearn, who, though still married and a father of grown children, not only eggs David on to ever greater sexual triumphs, but almost rivals him in his own numerous amours. Their code seems to be summed up in the idea that "only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life, purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself" (p. 69).
But immediately after articulating this idea in both its negative and positive aspects, Kepesh remembers death: "Sex is also the revenge on death." Death is important to remember, and in its context he recognizes that even sex is limited in its power. "But tell me," he asks his listener, "what power is greater?" (p. 69). For David Kepesh, nothing else seems to be. When George suffers a severe stroke and dies soon after Kepesh visits him, witnessing his last erotic gestures, David begins to realize more fully than ever death's primacy. It further confronts him devastatingly when, after a lapse of six years, he receives a desperate call from Consuela, who now is afflicted with what she fears may be a fatal cancer of the breast.
Death is the mother of beauty, as Yeats once suggested, but it is not for David Kepesh. For him, as it must be for others like him, it is the supreme tenor. If Roth writes an exquisite, non-salacious pornography of sex, as in his description of the way Consuela has an orgasm, he is equally adept in the pornography of death. George O'Hearn's dying is full testimony to that. But in The Dying Animal, unlike Sabbath's Theater, I miss the confident assertiveness of life, the elan vital that keeps Mickey Sabbath finally from his planned suicide. While Mickey finds in becoming the caretaker of his brother's remains a reason to go on living, Kepesh decides that in spite of everything, he must go to Consuela in her anguish over her impending mastectomy, despite the warning of his interlocutor: "if you go, you're finished."
Although the novel's ending is ambiguous, Kepesh may indeed be finished. Roth certainly is not. Some critics, like the feminist Michiko Kakutani writing in the New York Times, think that The Dying Animal is beneath his best work, a slight thing, "curiously flimsy and synthetic," in her words. I think it is anything but that. Roth maintains the competence and interest that has grown with each succeeding novel ever since the Zuckerman trilogy. I agree rather with Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, who ends his favorable review by suggesting that sympathetic readers may find themselves asking, "Is Philip Roth now our finest living writer?" It's a good question, and the answer is obvious.