The Dying Animalby Philip Roth
Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when he left his wife and child,
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David Kepesh is white-haired and over sixty, an eminent TV culture critic and star lecturer at a New York college, when he meets Consuela Castillo, a decorous, well-mannered student of twenty-four, the daughter of wealthy Cuban exiles, who promptly puts his life into erotic disorder.
Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when he left his wife and child, Kepesh has experimented with living what he calls an "emancipated manhood," beyond the reach of family or a mate. Over the years he has refined that exuberant decade of protest and license into an orderly life in which he is both unimpeded in the world of eros and studiously devoted to his aesthetic pursuits. But the youth and beauty of Consuela, "a masterpiece of volupté" undo him completely, and a maddening sexual possessiveness transports him to the depths of deforming jealousy. The carefree erotic adventure evolves, over eight years, into a story of grim loss.
What is astonishing is how much of America’s post-sixties sexual landscape is encompassed in THE DYING ANIMAL. Once again, with unmatched facility, Philip Roth entangles the fate of his characters with the social forces that shape our daily lives. And there is no character who can tell us more about the way we live with desire now than David Kepesh, whose previous incarnations as a sexual being were chronicled by Roth in THE BREAST and THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE.
A work of passionate immediacy as well as a striking exploration of attachment and freedom, THE DYING ANIMAL is intellectually bold, forcefully candid, wholly of our time, and utterly without precedent--a story of sexual discovery told about himself by a man of seventy, a story about the power of eros and the fact of death.
To read Roth's novels with any degree of sympathy is to fall instantly beneath the spell of their characteristic first-person narrative and to feel the power of Roth's voice: urgent, intimate, captivatingly intelligent and bitterly comic. Nearly all of Roth's heroes are desperate people, yearning to make sense of their lives and at the same time to grab us by the lapels. What has distinguished Kepesh in this group is simply that he is a little more desperate, a little less dignified than his peers.
Divided between his high-minded dedication to culture and his rampaging id, Kepesh has raved in solipsistic isolation through two previous novels. In The Breast, Roth's homage to Kafka and Gogol published in 1972, the lecherous Kepesh found himself unaccountably transformed into a six-foot-tall, 155-pound human mammary gland. Five years later, a prequel, The Professor of Desire, recounted the sorry tale of Kepesh's early romantic history, in which, torn between his longing for the dignified life of theman of letters and his irrepressible desires, Kepesh wheeled from one disastrous relationship to another.
While Roth never explains how Kepesh escaped the anatomical imprisonment he experienced in The Breast to become the man he is herean elderly, mildly self-important and slightly ridiculous cultural critiche does make it clear that The Dying Animal is a kind of coda to his recent trilogy. Kepesh's biography is a testament to the bewildering course of postwar American history and to the astonishing, and terrifying, freedoms it appeared to open.
For Kepesh, the heart of this story lies in the sexual revolution, but, like Roth's earlier protagonists, he is never able to think of his personal desires and his private torments without imagining that they exemplify a larger vision of American liberty. "Am I or am I not a candidate for this wild, sloppy, raucous repudiation, this wholesale wrecking of the inhibitive past?" Kepesh asks himself. "Can I master the discipline of freedom as opposed to the recklessness of freedom? How does one turn freedom into a system?" Those are big questions, and in Roth's recent work they have resulted in big, complex and profoundly dark novels.
Kepesh is a media persona, the kind of critic who does three-minute essays on PBS and book reviews for NPR. His natural genre is not tragedy but farce, and he appears accordingly at the center of that classic story of ludicrous behavior, the older man's obsession with a younger woman. The Dying Animal is the story of his brief affair and long, jealous obsession with Consuela Castillo, a voluptuous young student nearly forty years his junior.
As Kepesh notes himself, this is not a story designed to evoke sorrow and pity. We have entered, he warns, "the realm of the ridiculous." Except that Roth's novel never really becomes that ridiculous, and his heart never seems in the farcical story he appears to have set out to tell.
For a tale of sexual obsession, the story is weirdly lacking in vitality, or passion or comedy, and it includes few of the hallmarks of erotic torment (the fetishistic lingering over the love object, the constant worry over the intentions of the beloved, the anguished speculation about rivals) traditional to the genre. Kepesh admits that he suffered terrible jealousy, but we never get the sense that he has felt a pang. Roth seems more interested in diagramming the conflicts that have long bothered Kepeshthe tensions between mind and body, freedom and conventionthan in making his alleged torment seem real. With the exception of a brilliantly vivid subplot in which Kepesh recounts his battles with his reproachful, middle-age son, the book remains strangely lifeless, and Kepesh's passion seems mainly theoretical. As if to underscore that fact, Roth ends the story with a crude plot twist lifted almost directly from Jacqueline Susann's cult novel Valley of the Dolls.
Rather than a story about an old man's silly efforts to hold onto youth, the book turns out to be a tribute to Kepesh's intelligence and rigor, to the tentative victory of freedom over desire, of mind over bodyand, ultimately, of Kepesh over Consuela. It is an ugly conclusion to a story that grows harsher and more disturbing as one goes along. In the novella's unsettling last lines, Roth hints at a possibility that also haunted Kepesh's narrative in The Breast, that we may have been imprisoned all along in the deluded thoughts of a highly unreliable narrator. The triumph of Kepesh's freedom, it seemslike his bodily imprisonmentmay be all in his mind.
Sean McCann (Excerpted Review)
—The New York Review of Books
“Sorrowful, sexy, elegant . . .. A distinguished addition to Roth's increasingly remarkable literary career.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Roth is a mesmerizing writer, whose very language has the vitality of a living organism.”
—Los Angeles Times
“No one can come close to Roth's comic genius and breadth of moral imperative.”
—The Boston Globe
Read an Excerpt
I knew her eight years ago. She was in my class. I don’t teach full- time anymore, strictly speaking don’t teach literature at all--for years now just the one class, a big senior seminar in critical writing called Practical Criticism. I attract a lot of female students. For two reasons. Because it’s a subject with an alluring combination of intellectual glamour and journalistic glamour and because they’ve heard me on NPR reviewing books or seen me on Thirteen talking about culture. Over the past fifteen years, being cultural critic on the television program has made me fairly well known locally, and they’re attracted to my class because of that. In the beginning, 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 these students. But they are helplessly drawn to celebrity, however inconsiderable mine may be.
Now, I’m very vulnerable to female beauty, as you know. Everybody’s defenseless against something, and that’s it for me. I see it and it blinds me to everything else. They come to my first class, and I know almost immediately which is the girl for me. There is a Mark Twain story in which he runs from a bull, and the bull looks up to him when he’s hiding in a tree, and the bull thinks, “You are my meat, sir.” Well, that “sir” is transformed into “young lady” when I see them in class. It is now eight years ago--I was already sixty-two, and the girl, who is called Consuela Castillo, was twenty-four. She is not like the rest of the class. She doesn’t look like a student, at least not like an ordinary student. She’s not a demi-adolescent, she’s not a slouching, unkempt, “like”-ridden girl. She’s well spoken, sober, her posture is perfect--she appears to know something about adult life along with how to sit, stand, and walk. As soon as you enter the class, you see that this girl either knows more or wants to. The way she dresses. It isn’t ex-actly what’s called chic, she’s certainly not flamboyant, but, to begin with, she’s never in jeans, pressed or unpressed. She dresses carefully, with quiet taste, in skirts, dresses, and tailored pants. Not to desen-sualize herself but more, it would seem, to professionalize herself, she dresses like an attractive secretary in a prestigious legal firm. Like the secretary to the bank chairman. She has a cream-colored silk blouse under a tailored blue blazer with gold buttons, a brown pocketbook with the patina of expensive leather, and little ankle boots to match, and she wears a slightly stretchy gray knitted skirt that re-veals her body lines as subtly as such a skirt possibly could. Her hair is done in a natural but cared-for manner. She has a pale complexion, the mouth is bowlike though the lips are full, and she has a rounded forehead, a polished forehead of a smooth Brancusi elegance. She is Cuban. Her family are prosperous Cubans living in Jersey, across the river in Bergen County. She has black, black hair, glossy but ever so slightly coarse. And she’s big. She’s a big woman. The silk blouse is unbuttoned to the third button, and so you see she has powerful, beauti- ful breasts. You see the cleavage immediately. And you see she knows it. You see, despite the decorum, the meticulousness, the cautiously soigné style--or because of them--that she’s aware of herself. She comes to the first class with the jacket buttoned over her blouse, yet some five minutes into the session, she has taken it off. When I glance her way again, I see that she’s put it back on. So you understand that she’s aware of her power but that she isn’t sure yet how to use it, what to do with it, how much she even wants it. That body is still new to her, she’s still trying it out, thinking it through, a bit like a kid walking the streets with a loaded gun and deciding whether he’s packing it to protect himself or to begin a life of crime.
And she’s aware of something else, and this I couldn’t know from the one class meeting: she finds culture important in a reverential, old- fashioned way. Not that it’s something she wishes to live by. She doesn’t and she couldn’t--too traditionally well brought up for that-- but it’s important and wonderful as nothing else she knows is. She’s the one who finds the Impressionists ravishing but must look long and hard--and always with a sense of nagging confoundment--at a Cubist Picasso, trying with all her might to get the idea. She stands there waiting for the surprising new sensation, the new thought, the new emotion, and when it won’t come, ever, she chides herself for being inadequate and lacking . . . what? She chides herself for not even knowing what it is she lacks. Art that smacks of modernity leaves her not merely puzzleed but disappointed in herself. She would love for Picasso to matter more, perhaps to transform her, but there’s a scrim drawn across the proooooscenium of genius that obscures her vision and keeps her worshiping at a bit of a distance. She gives to art, to all of art, far more than she gets back, a sort of earnestness that isn’t without its poignant appeal. A good heart, a lovely face, a gaze at once invit- ing and removed, gorgeous breasts, and so newly hatched as a woman that to find fragments of broken shell adhering to that ovoid forehead wouldn’t have been a surprise. I saw right away that this was going to be my girl.
Now, I have one set rule of some fifteen years’ standing that I never break. I don’t any longer get in touch with them on a private basis until they’ve completed their final exam and received their grade and I am no longer officially in loco parentis. In spite of temptation-- or even a clear-cut signal to begin the flirtation and make the approach--I haven’t broken this rule since, back in the mid-eighties, the phone number of the sexual harassment hotline was first posted outside my office door. I don’t get in touch with them any earlier so as not to run afoul of those in the university who, if they could, would seriously impede my enjoyment of life.
I teach each year for fourteen weeks, and during that time I don’t have affairs with them. I play a trick instead. It’s an honest trick, it’s an open and aboveboard trick, but it is a trick nonetheless. After the final examination and once the grades are in, I throw a party in my apartment for the students. It is always a success and it is always the same. I invite them for a drink at about six o’clock. I say that from six to eight we are going to have a drink, and they always stay till two in the morning. The bravest ones, after ten o’clock, develop into lively characters and tell me what they really are interested in. In the Practical Criticism seminar there are about twenty students, sometimes as many as twenty-five, so there will be fifteen, sixteen girls and five or six boys, of whom two or three are straight. Half of this group has left the party by ten. Generally, one straight boy, maybe one gay boy, and some nine girls will stay. They’re invariably the most cultivated, intelligent, and spirited of the lot. They talk about what they’re reading, what they’re listening to, what art shows they’ve seen--enthusiasms that they don’t normally go on about with their elders or necessarily with their friends. They find one another in my class. And they find me. During the party they suddenly see I am a human being. I’m not their teacher, I’m not my reputation, I’m not their parent. I have a pleasant, orderly duplex apartment, they see my large library, aisles of double-faced bookshelves that house a lifetime’s reading and take up almost the entire downstairs floor, they see my piano, they see my devotion to what I do, and they stay.
My funniest student one year was like the goat in the fairy tale that goes into the clock to hide. I threw the last of them out at two in the morning, and while saying good night, I missed one girl. I said, “Where is our class clown, Prospero’s daughter?” “Oh, I think Miranda left,” somebody said. I went back into the apartment to start cleaning the place up and I heard a door being closed upstairs. A bathroom door. And Miranda came down the stairs, laughing, radi-ant with a kind of goofy abandon--I’d never, till that moment, realized that she was so pretty--and she said, “Wasn’t that clever of me? I’ve been hiding in your upstairs bathroom, and now I’m going to sleep with you.” A little thing, maybe five foot one, and she pulled off her sweater and showed me her tits, revealing the adolescent torso of an incipiently transgressive Bal-thus virgin, and of course we slept together. All eve-ning long, much like a young girl escaped from the perilous melodrama of a Balthus painting into the fun of the class party, Miranda had been on all fours on the floor with her rump raised or lying helplessly prostrate on my sofa or lounging gleefully across the arms of an easy chair seemingly oblivious of the fact that with her skirt riding up her thighs and her legs undecorously parted she had the Balthusian air of being half undressed while fully clothed. Everything’s hidden and nothing’s concealed. Many of these girls have been having sex since they were fourteen, and by their twenties there are one or two curious to do it with a man of my years, if just the once, and eager the next day to tell all their friends, who crinkle up their faces and ask, “But what about his skin? Didn’t he smell funny? What about his long white hair? What about his wattle? What about his little pot belly? Didn’t you feel sick?” Miranda told me afterward, “You must have slept with hundreds of women. I wanted to see what it would be like.” “And?” And then she said things I didn’t entirely believe, but it didn’t matter. She had been audacious--she had seen she could do it, game and terrified though she may have been while hid-ing in the bathroom. She discovered how courageous she was confronting this unfamiliar juxtaposition, that she could conquer her initial fears and any initial revulsion, and I--as regards the juxtaposition--had a wonderful time altogether. Sprawling, clowning, ca-vorting Miranda, posing with her underwear at her feet. Just the pleasure of looking was lovely. Though that was hardly the only reward. The decades since the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators. There’s been nothing like them ever before among their class of young women.
Copyright © 2001 by Philip Roth
Meet the Author
In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, among others. He has twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ prize for "the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004" and the W.H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year, making Roth the first writer in the forty-six-year history of the prize to win it twice.
In 2005 Roth became the third living American writer to have his works published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. In 2012 he won Spain’s highest honor, the Prince of Asturias Award, and in 2013 he received France’s highest honor, Commander of the Legion of Honor.
- Date of Birth:
- March 19, 1933
- Place of Birth:
- Newark, New Jersey
- B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Philip Roth's texts, especially The Dying Animal, are way ahead of me (16-Years-Old) but I secretly picked up this gem. It is shocking, disturbing at times, and extremely sexual in nature, but all the more savorful. We follow once again the famed David Kepesh and his enticing sexual adventures up until he meets Consuela, a Cuban student whom he developes more feelings for then he likes to admit. The story is told to us through Kepesh's direct words and he reveals so much to us that you insantly develope a connection, growing more impossible to believe that he is a fictional character. The story takes twisted turns and leaves us with the empression of a man who just never grew up, or, better said, grew with society's tweaks and morphs. Highly recommended book, the movie some what does it justice, but to really delve into Kepesh's lifestyle read this great page-turner.
The Dying Animal had a great story that could have been evolved to something more capturing for the general reader. The beauty of the women and the tough encounter with cancer were themes with a lot of feeling and emotion but Philip Roth created this story into something very cold hearted and with very little emotion. This book could have been much more emotionally in depth as well as being erotic but was more emotionally surfaced.
This book illustrates much of what is wrong with one of the great American writers of the past half- century. The sheer heartlessness of this book, the cold intelligence, the lack of real human feeling makes this work another small lurid trip of the Roth-ean imagination at its worse. The great Portnoy will make you laugh and cry, and Patrimony is a gem of telling the father- son relation, and even the late American pastoral has some of the real Rothean best stuff in it. But this is Kepesh junk on the very same level as 'The Breast' When you read it you feel as if you have done something slightly immoral and ugly.
Mr. Roth is a brilliant writer and this story reflects that. In anyone elses hands this book would not work. Enjoyable, readable.
I don't mind the sex scenes that others complain about but I sure didn't find this book to be anything special. It also annoyed me that it is so short in length. Being a fast reader, i detest books that I can read in a short sitting and yet the publisher charges regular prices.
Philip Roth does a masteful job interwining sex, desire, evolution and ambition to not only reveal the inner character but tell an intriguing story.