Books May 2001

The Nihilist

Philip Roth's hard, isolate—and heroic—vision

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

In 1994 the London Sunday Times asked leading, mostly British writers to name the world's premier English-language novelist. The response—from Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and others—was entirely predictable, in that Saul Bellow and John Updike easily got the most nods. For years they and Philip Roth would have formed a triumvirate among critics, but Roth pulled up the rear, earning only three mentions. It was thought that Roth had become an unhappy parody of himself, a writer of mechanical certainties who, in his novel Operation Shylock (1993), an extremely funny exploration of doubleness and the disintegrating self, had turned his obsession with the slippage between autobiography and fiction, between the real and the imagined, into a programmatic poetics of romantic despair. Roth, it seemed, had no other subject than himself—and how bored we were by the trajectory of his life, by his frustrations with his father, by his ambivalence about his Jewishness and his sexual delinquency, by his feeble protestations that Operation Shylock, with its Mossad spies and avenging double called Philip Roth, was not fiction but the truth, that it all happened. You bet, Philip, one wanted to say, you bet.

If the same poll were taken today, however, it is difficult to imagine that Roth would not finish right at the top, because something happened to him in the mid-1990s, something unprecedented in modern letters: he began, in his seventh decade, when most of his peers had resignedly entered the long twilight of their careers, to get better. He began to write better books. His best books. In retrospect it seemed that with the publication of Shylock, Roth had reached a kind of terminus—the end of the beginning, as it were. He could go on only by going backward, to a time when he wrote less about himself than about other people. Freed from the tyranny of the self, he would be able again to grapple with American modernity.

Reading Roth's recent trilogy of novels about postwar American society—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000)—and Sabbath's Theater (1995) before that, one senses that here is a writer who, even at the age of sixty-eight, burns to invent. (A May, 2000, New Yorker profile described how the now reclusive Roth, because of a bad back, works standing up at a lectern, writing all day, into the evening, and sometimes in the middle of the night.) As a result his fiction has a peculiar contemporary resonance, an existential frenzy of the kind once familiar from the work of, say, Dostoevski, Conrad, or Céline, but which has largely disappeared from the Anglo-American novel, if it was ever there. So the more one reads of late Roth, the more one is convinced that he is writing against extinction, that he works to the sound of death panting behind him, feels its cankerous breath on his neck. And what death-haunted work he was producing so late in the day, so late in the past century!

The Dying Animal—like Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral—is soaked in death and illness, in the sense of an imminent ending. It is narrated by David Kepesh, a worldly, callous, libertine cultural critic and lecturer at a New York college whom we last encountered in The Professor of Desire (1977), when, on a trip to Prague, he dreamed he met the whore who once slept with Franz Kafka. In the parable-like The Breast (1972) we had watched in bewilderment as Kepesh mutated, in a neat Kafkaesque joke, into a gigantic breast, and found himself hospitalized and helpless, a fairground curiosity, a specimen for display, an exhibit, a freak. And possibly a madman, too. Now, in this new novel, he has fallen in love with ... well, a breast—or a pair of breasts, to be precise. They belong to one of his students, a wealthy, charming Cuban-American named Consuela Castillo, whose thrilling desirability enchants, infatuates, and torments Kepesh.

The Professor of Desire was constructed as a lengthy speech, and this novel can similarly be read as a dramatic monologue or a long retrospective, unfurling in a crisis of self-revelation. As in Albert Camus's The Fall, another work of intimate confession, we never meet the protagonist's unnamed interlocutor, if he or she exists at all, who occupies the shadowy margins of the text. Here that interlocutor speaks only at the end, to inform Kepesh that he, like the book we have just read, is "finished."

The book opens eight years after his affair with Consuela began, and we quickly understand that Kepesh has been humbled and wounded by the experience, that he thinks about this woman, whom he no longer sees, continually and desperately. He often masturbates to the memory of her body. "The longing never disappeared even while I had her. The primary emotion, as I've said, was longing. It's still longing. There's no relief from the longing and my sense of myself as a supplicant."

Consuela is a big woman, "a masterpiece of volupté." "She has a D cup," Kepesh says, "this duchess, really big, beautiful breasts, and skin of a very white color, skin that, the moment you see it, makes you want to lick it." (It is odd that even when extolling these breasts, Kepesh never pauses to recall that he, at least in his fantasies, was once a living and breathing breast.)

Consuela and Kepesh's relationship is, as one would expect in Roth, intensely sexual. (And, as ever, Roth bathes in a steady flow of bodily fluids.) Kepesh is a product of sixties rebellion: long ago he renounced any pretense of living what he sees as a conventional life—one constrained by monogamy and routine relationships. He is used to sleeping with his students and with any number of other women. He really is the man who loved women—hundreds of women, in an infinite variety of ways. His friend George is similarly licentious; they pedantically dissect Kepesh's relationship with Consuela, muttering puerile mantras: "He who forms a tie is lost, attachment is my enemy."

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