Other people. Somebody should have told me about them long ago.
I can't remember where I read this remark, probably in one of Philip Roth's more self indulgent novels from the 1980s or early 1990s, probably one of the Nathan Zuckerman books, an early one like The Anatomy Lesson or The Counterlife. I can guess, however, what prompted the remark. Roth was giving himself a hard time, as usual, calling attention to what was, then anyway, his only real flaw as a novelist, his unrelenting self-absorption. He was calling attention to it, by the way, so that he could then go on, also as usual, disregarding it.
That's because, sooner than later, Roth's gaze has always fallen on himself. He's turned his life into a science project, himself into the literary equivalent of a formaldehyde frog, dissecting every wayward instinct, every flicker of good and, more often, bad conscience. "Me-itis" was what he labelled his disease and for a lot of readers the symptoms remained fascinating, even though they had become predictable long ago.
But something changed in the last decade. Roth and his autobiographical stand-ins started to look outside themselves. This particular Eureka may have come for Roth when he wrote Patrimony, a heartbreaking memoir about his father's death. But it's been in his extravagantly and deservedly praised American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and last year's The Human Stain), that he's seemed to not just be aware of "other people" but to know everything there is to know about them¨about all of us, in fact, about our most compelling and convoluted secrets. The foremost chronicler of the self has evolved into the foremost chronicler of his time and place.
With this in mind, The Dying Animal, Roth's latest work of fiction, is bound to be disappointing. The problem may be that Roth has been writing great books lately¨The Human Stain, in particular, is one of the best things I've read in twenty years¨and The Dying Animal is merely good. Still, in some ways, it does feel as if Roth is reverting to self-indulgent form¨he may not be so obviously the one relapsing into "me-itis" this time, but his narrator, David Kepesh certainly is. Roth's fiction has always been long on talk and short on action and The Dying Animal is no exception. Kepesh, who addresses an unidentified listener throughout the narrative, doesn't take a breath. He is, by turns, insightful, provocative and self-justifying. Here he is in typical non-stop mode, explaining, from the vantage point of a man of 70, waiting, with some trepidation, for the new millennium, why he walked out on his wife and abandoned his young son in the do-your-own-thing sixties:
"(I) had to think. There I was, still in the prime of life and the country entering into this extraordinary time. Am I or am I not a candidate for this wild, sloppy, raucous repudiation, this wholesale wrecking of inhibitive past? Can I master the discipline of freedom as opposed to the recklessness of freedom? How does one turn freedom into a system?"
Kepesh even tries to explain his system to his estranged son, now 42, in The Dying Animal by quoting Toqueville on the danger of "men being forced through the same sieve." He also offers tips to his son, who is having an affair of his own and being torn apart by it in a way his father never was, on how to escape "the trammels of convention." Not surprisingly, his son's interpretation of the Toqueville quote and the after-the-fact explanations is that his father is a selfish bastard, which he is. And which is precisely Kepesh's point. You have to be to live your life as freely and indulgently as he has. To be fair in that somewhat disingenuous way reviewers are obliged to be fair, Kepesh is not Roth, nowhere near as close to Roth as Zuckerman, for instance. (Martin Amis referred to Zuckerman in a review once as Roth's alter ego, then corrected himself, adding, "Where's the alter?") Still, Kepesh is in the ballpark.
He's 70 (Roth is almost 70; strike one), he's a New Yorker by way of New Jersey (like Roth; strike two) and he's a Jewish intellectual preoccupied with the subjects of sex and death (strike three and you're out). Kepesh doesn't write books, but he does teach one seminar course a year on literature. He also comments, once a week, on cultural matters for public television. This profile as an intellectual is, to Kepesh's surprise, enough to supply him with what he requires¨and he requires a great deal¨in the way of sexual companionship. "I didn't realize that talking on TV once a week for ten minutes could be so impressive as it turns out to be to those (female) students. But they are helplessly drawn to celebrity, however inconsiderable mine may be," Kepesh says.
Rationalization is not an exclusively male trait, but we do seem to be awfully good at it. In The Dying Animal, the art of rationalization is furiously at work. All Kepesh's talk about "emancipated manhood" and sexual freedom¨casting himself as a kind of Don Juan for the new millennium, a kind of guru of non-attachment¨is meticulously researched and colourfully explained, to be sure, but Roth, as always, is more concerned with what happens when all our well-laid and foolishly conceived plans for our happiness backfire. As they invariably do.
The trap that the unconventional Kepesh falls into could hardly be more conventional. He falls in love with one of his conquests¨a 24-year-old Cuban-born woman named Consuelo Castillo. At first, the attraction is simple: Kepesh can't take his eyes off her "beautiful, powerful breasts." (Kepesh's obsession with breasts is an inside-joke since the first time this character appeared in Roth's work in the 1972 novel The Breast, he was transformed, Kafka-style, into a giant mammary gland; Kepesh also was the hero of Roth's 1977 novel The Professor of Desire.) He seduces Consuela the way he seduces all his former students¨he always waits until the end of the term to make his move¨with a combination of fatherly interest and world-weary wisdom.
He also expects to drop her the way he drops all his lovers, with a minimum of fuss. Which is understandable since he's dedicated his life to keeping his relationships physically intense but emotionally simple, though stupid might be a better word. He has a rationalization for this too:
"Sex isn't just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don't forget death. Don't ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?"
This sounds good on paper, but, like most theories on sex, it doesn't stand up to a lot of scrutiny. After all, what is Kepesh really saying here? That sex is a diversion that keeps us from facing our mortality. Of course, that's true, but I'm guessing you could say the same for bridge or squash. When you're whacking that little black ball, who thinks about dying?
No, it's "the eternal problem of attachment" that is really bugging Kepesh. Just before he and Consuela have sex for the first time, she explains to Kepesh that she could never be his wife. That's the moment, Kepesh admits, that "my terrible jealousy was born." Consuela eventually leaves her aging lover and he spends the next eight years¨up until the present date of the story¨longing for her. Then, unexpectedly, she returns, putting Kepesh and all his intellectual excuses and high-minded notions about freedom to a real test.
Kepesh "took the hammer to domestic life" years ago and suddenly he's starting to wonder about what he smashed. "Maybe now that I'm nearing death," he says, "I also long secretly not to be free." Hello. This is neat enough to be an epiphany, but Roth prefers to keep things compellingly messy. It remains open-ended as to whether Kepesh will change his selfish ways or not. In the end, we are left to wonder if one more self-indulgent and fascinating Roth alter ego is a champion of sexual freedom or a just a forlorn refugee from love and commitment. ˛