It’s difficult to know what to make of a character introduced to us three decades ago as a literature professor who found himself transformed into a giant breast. Such was the case with David Alan Kepesh in Philip Roth’s 1972 novella, The Breast. It’s more difficult still when the character next appears in a fairly naturalistic sexual and intellectual bildungsroman, as was the case in 1977’s The Professor of Desire.
Whereas Roth’s other recurring alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is a conservative, reactive narratorprimarily a vehicle to relay with a reflective distance the mishaps of othersKepesh is a self-obsessed vehicle out of alignment and largely uninterested
in any exploits other than his own.
Let’s speculate, given what came after, that The Breast was a reverie, however vivid, in Kafka-meets-Gogol mode. The Professor of Desire invited us to consider the “real” Kepesh, a bright, knowledgeable, sex-starved, self-centered hedonist looking for sensitivity and meaning beyond the scope of his hypertrophied appetites. (Mickey Sabbath of 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater was a more crazed, and more interesting, variation; Coleman Silk of last year’s The Human Stain a less crazed, less interesting one. In any case, the whole motif is getting tired.)
Now Kepesh is back, in Roth’s The Dying Animal, but no longer does he perplex or intrigue. No longer do his internal struggles draw us in. In this latest underwhelming installment in the saga of Kepesh’s life and loves, he’s merely unsympathetic and tedious. Roth at his worst has better chops than many authors at their best. But even die-hard fans won over by gems like American Pastoral will find the scribe spinning his wheels here. The silver lining is that the book’s mercifully short.
Kepesh is now a 62-year-old whose tapered teaching load at a New York university consists entirely of one seminar, Practical Criticism. For Kepesh, of course, criticism is most practical for hooking up with his comeliest female students, awed by his cultural commentaries on public radio and TV.
Kepesh’s newest conquest is the buxom 24-year-old Consuela Castillo, the decorous daughter of Cuban émigrés. In a ritual of seduction that he’s been practicing regularly since the sexual revolution of the ’60swhen he gleefully and self-righteously abandoned his marriage and his sonthe professor takes Consuela to the theater, takes her back to his apartment, plays Haydn on the stereo for her, plays Schubert on the piano for her, then simply plays and takes her. What he sees in her is clear: mostly her breasts, to which half the novel is an homage. Only occasionally can he pry his eyes away from them long enough to admire her bottom.
What she sees in him is far less clear. Here’s Kepesh’s theory:
I am the author of her mastery of me.
You see, I think that in me Consuela sensed a possessable version of her family’s refinement, of that unrecoverable aristocratic past that is more or less a myth to her. A man of the world. A cultural authority. Her teacher. Now, most people are appalled by the vast difference in age, but it is the very thing Consuela is drawn to. The erotic oddness is all most people register, and they register it as repugnance, as repugnant farce. But…[t]hese girls with old gents don’t do it despite the agethey’re drawn to the age, they do it for the age. Why? In Consuela’s case, because the vast difference in age gives her permission to submit, I think….the license to surrender, and surrendering in bed is a not unpleasant sensation.
Talk about an unreliable narrator. This is, after all, a man who once thought he was a breast.
A boob is more like it. Surrendering to Kepesh sounds like a most unpleasant sensation. Dominance is the undercurrent of much of his sexual recounting: “You’re back in the woods with sex. You’re back in the bog. What it is is trading dominance, perpetual imbalance. You’re going to rule out dominance? You’re going to rule out yielding? The dominating is the flint, it strikes the spark, it sets it going.” And sure enough, what makes the relationship real to him is when he forces himself on Consuela in a particularly aggressive, hair-pulling way that makes her, understandably enough, want to bite him. That that response turns him on, that his ultimate yahoos appear to be derived from his own suffering and humiliation, doesn’t negate the fact that he’s a consummate control freak.
Although Kepesh would like us to think he’s enlightening rather than exploiting Consuela, we don’t buy it for a minute. That she’s lonely enough to look to him for some semblance of stability seems only sad. Roth’s Sabbath was a raunchy rebel of Falstaffian proportions and without pretense of higher purposes, and so we could, on paper at least, enjoy his sordid company. Kepesh is just a windbag whose tiring harangue of a narrative only confirms, rather than dispels, his sexual andmore significantmoral kinks.
Kepesh’s rants against marriage and convention are old hat. Kepesh’s ridicule of the troubled son he abandoned only makes us want to set up a fund to support the psychotherapy the son so richly deserves. Kepesh’s nostalgia about Woodstock-era sexual mores sounds like an old Playboy essay dug up from dusty archives. It’s primarily an excuse to compare sex with undergraduates then and sex with the same women now that they’ve become middle-aged, depressive office overachievers. “Carolyn the undergraduate flower you pollinated, Carolyn at forty-five you farmed,” he opines, to which, may we all respond in unison: Yuck.
We suspect, or maybe hope, halfway through the novel that Roth is setting the professor up for some kind of redemption. Subplots involving a terminally ill friend, Kepesh’s obsession with Consuela after she oh-so-sensibly ditches him, and his reaction to her subsequent misfortunes all point that way. Truth to tell, we grow so tired of the professor’s self-serving babble that we don’t even care much whether he learns anything from life at his relatively late age. We only doubt that he can.
Is there a moral here? An ironic distance between author and character? If so, the distance isn’t great enough. It’s Kepesh’s company the pages force us to keep, and that particular form of surrender is a most unpleasant sensation.
Kepesh is like that great uncle who can be relied on to say inappropriate things too loudly just to show that he’s still with it, that his views are not to be taken for granted. But that tack only confirms that the old man is running on emotional and intellectual autopilot. We want him to pipe down not because we’re shocked by his off-color rants but because he’s a bore. CP