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Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Dying Animal The Dying Animal by Philip Roth

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've always liked Roth and had bought this book as a slightly mashed copy on a bargain table several years ago. I pulled it out to read in anticipation of reviewing the DVD of Elegy, the film adaptation from last year. The Dying Animal is a short novel, and one that I must like in spite of myself, in spite of my often horrified reaction to the selfishness and intensity of the sexual peccadilloes of its narrator. David Kepesh is one of Roth's regular characters, and the man who turned into a giant tit in the appropriately titled The Breast, a parody of Kafka and one of the funniest things I've ever read. (Inside joke in this book being an admiration of a hand-written Kafka manuscript binding Kepesh with his fetish object.)

Kepesh isn't so much an unreliable narrator as one that is both myopic and didactic regarding the myopia. His story here is one of obsession regarding his long-term existence as an unapologetic, often evangelical libertine, and the crystallization of that lifestyle in one woman, the 24-year-old Consuela Castillo, and her rather large chest. The 62-year-old Kepesh becomes so overtaken by his desire for her, it begins to threaten the cavalier lifestyle he has so meticulously constructed.

What makes The Dying Animal slightly sickening to read is Kepesh's effusive recounting of his pleasures with Consuela. Talk about the male gaze, this book is one long, creepy stare! What makes me feel pangs of guilt, though, is how mesmerizing it can be, almost like Kepesh is hypnotizing me. Roth writes the book in long paragraphs, no dialogue breaks, just strings of traded conversation, and it compels the reader to move quickly through the novel, to feverishly go from page to page.

The "sex and death" coupling is nothing new, but Roth has inextricably entwined them here in this narrative. To borrow a metaphor he uses in the book--though he relates it as the trade-off of subservience and domination that is part of any sexual encounter--it is as if he has braided the two, creating one criss-cross strand where once there was a pair (and, admittedly, a pair that began from the same source, as the hair would come from the same head). Since The Dying Animal begins with so much about youth and carnality, the switch to ruminations on the aging process and mortality is surprising. Roth even creates a counterpoint to Kepesh's remorseless pursuit of Consuela by introducing us to David's estranged son, who so hates how his father lives, he thoroughly demands the opposite of himself even when it causes him terrible misery.

I think Roth is aware that there for all his belief in his own powers of observation, Kepesh is ironically unaware that the story he intends to share about Consuela is never about anyone but himself. Even in the emotional climax, where the knowledge of death prematurely comes to the young, he can't see the frightened heart beating beneath those great big breasts, he only sees the loss of his own desire. Or thinks he does, because it is also never more evident how out of control of his own life he is. I suppose this be a spoiler of sorts--so beware!--but there is a profound narrative switch on the very last page that will take some time to chew on and digest. Throughout the book, it has been made clear that Kepesh's monologue is meant to be a literal one, that he is speaking to someone directly, some invisible witness, a stand-in for the reader. In the last lines, not only does the witness speak up, but for the first time, Roth relates the call-and-response between him and Kepesh as separately rendered paragraphs (though the witness in quotes, Kepesh still not). It's a dramatic change, a last-chance grabbing at something that could be slipping away. Are we implicated now as the confidante, having read all the way to this end? Is Kepesh's obsession now our own?

And how the hell can the movie of this exist without either removing some of Kepesh’s beastly opinions or risk the entire audience thinking Ben Kingsley is the biggest slimeball to ever grace the silver screen? Because how can one not be more sympathetic to Penelope Cruz--particularly since in a film we will see her as something more whole than the idealized creature presented through David Kepesh’s eyes? Questions I will have to answer in another review. [Edit: That review now available here.]

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All text (c) 2009 Jamie S. Rich

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