Sick With Desire

September 5, 2001

Philip Roth, The Dying Animal, London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

200px-DyingAnimalThe latest book from the multi-award-winning American novelist Philip Roth is another work of intense relationships.  Driven by sexual desire, and marked – at times brutally – by male power and weakness, this short novel is the latest instalment in a series of works centred on David Kepesh, a New York lecturer and cultural critic who is seventy years of age when he narrates The Dying Animal.  As the book begins, Kepesh chooses his “meat” from among the young women who take his class on Practical Criticism; independent and articulate young women who are drawn to his minor celebrity as a critic on local TV and reviewer of books for National Public Radio.  Kepesh is looking back eight years to his affair with the twenty-four year old Consuela Castillo, a wealthy Cuban-American with breasts like the Modigliani nude reclining on the book’s jacket.

As his story develops we become aware that Kepesh is both predator and vulnerable old man, haunted by eroticism, jealousy and a fear of death.  He selects his women from those on offer in the classroom, discards his wife in an act of ‘60s liberation that he routinely rationalises for the next three decades, and taunts the middle-aged son who blames his own personal failures – and adultery – on the absent father.  He uses his sophistication and cultural capital as lures to attract sex partners and as weapons to attack those who dare judge him, but he also relies on culture as a diversion from isolation and despair.  Kepesh fills his New York apartment with books, paintings, a piano and piles of music script; he tries to fill his life with female beauty, in the form of numerous young women who pass through his apartment – sometimes in secret – in a series of short-lived affairs.

The woman who dominates this novel – as she dominates Kepesh’s dreams – is Consuela Castillo, a memorable beauty who is both confident and threatened.  Although Roth writes boldly and explicitly of Consuela’s physical presence and her sexuality, it is Consuela’s absence that is most tormenting to Kepesh.  Consuela’s reflections on the marvels of Cuba before Castro’s blighted reign may be trite and second-hand – the product of a powerful visual imagination and so many nostalgic stories told by her parents and grandparents – but her decision not to return to Kepesh’s apartment after her graduation dislocates his life in a way reminiscent of the loss Consuela’s family feels when separated from their source of identity and passion.  After their year and a half together, Kepesh’s longing for Consuela is more than mere lust and selfishness, not simply the old goat craving a tasty feed or the bloated Cuban emigre greedily eyeing poor Cuba from across the sea in Miami.

Kepesh’s narrative voice in The Dying Animal keeps the reader alert and uncertain – at one moment shocked – or even disgusted – the next seduced.  Kepesh speaks directly in self-justification and refutes conventional morality, throwing out numerous intellectual and emotional challenges.  He creates vivid images of beauty and sex juxtaposed with degradation and callousness, testing the limits of intimacy.  He reflects thoughtfully on jealousy, illness and death, only to leave doubts about his motivation and constancy.  Fierce and defiant, but also at times wheedling and manipulative, Kepesh opens himself up to scrutiny as if the reader, personified on the edge of the cultural commentator’s sofa, is alternatively a mirror, a secular confessor, or a silent replacement for the old professor’s dead friend and confidante.

As one would expect from a novel with such a resonant title and evocative cover design (narrated by a cultural critic), The Dying Animal includes interesting discursions on writers, musicians and artists including Yeats, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Schubert and Modigliani.  The world of Roth’s novel is an intellectual world.  But it is a sensual world, a world within and between generations, and a world of America from the 1960s to the present day.  The Dying Animal is a personal story, the story of David and Consuela’s passions and fears and the fact of death, and it is a tale of our civilisation, our savage civilisation.  David and Consuela sit together on his sofa, watching the ludicrous millennial New Year’s Eve celebrations – Cubans in fruity hats and fireworks tearing the sky from Sydney to the Eiffel Tower, “brilliance flaring across the time zones, and none ignited by bin Laden” – and the old man senses “the monied world eagerly entering the prosperous dark ages.  A night of human happiness to usher in barbarism.com.”

Roth’s writing is raw and confrontational.  Moments of reconciliation that build almost to sentiment are stripped back in a single, brutal sentence.  And although Kepesh’s stories and his calculating charm draw you in, perhaps even to an embrace of understanding or sympathy, you can never quite tell if he will kiss, lick, or bite to the bone.

Image: Wikipedia

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