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."

But Kepesh's relationship with Consuela is different. For one thing, he is driven mad by jealousy of her extreme youth and the boyfriends she has had—and will have in the future, when he, aged and shrunken, an ephemeral star of the microphone, a mere book reviewer and cultural talking head, will be so much dust. It is death that gives this novel its remarkable charge and compulsion, and its devastating denouement.

At times, listening to the seventy-year-old Kepesh as he struggles to live under what he perceives as a sentence of death, one is reminded of Ferdinand Bardamu, the narrator of Céline's great nihilistic novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932). The engine of Céline's fiction is an irrational misanthropy. Ferdinand rails against mass society and the instincts of the herd, against what industrialization and democracy have done to the contemporary soul, and then crowns himself with laughter, because he knows that without laughter, without his fabulous contempt, he is nothing: "Death is chasing you, you've got to hurry, and while you're looking you've got to eat, and keep away from wars. That's a lot of things to do. It's no picnic."

Sex does for Kepesh what laughter does for Ferdinand: it is his protective shield, enabling him to survive, to affirm his solitude, to live under extremes of isolation and threat. But it is not enough, because something awful and unexpected—if fictionally overdetermined and schematic—is lying in wait for him. On New Year's Eve, 1999, he is alone at home, playing the piano and generally trying to avoid the great non-event of the millennium, when he receives a call from Consuela, to whom he has not spoken in years. The answering machine picks up, and he listens to her message. She has some news, something she wants to tell him.

He calls her back and learns that she is in the neighborhood; she comes immediately to his apartment. But something about her has changed. Why is she wearing a fezlike hat? Then she tells him: she has breast cancer, and there is a good chance that she might die. Kepesh is destroyed; in a scene of cruel comedy he can think of nothing but the ruination of her breasts, which she asks him to photograph before her operation. After he has taken about thirty pictures, they curl up together on the sofa to watch the millennial celebrations all over the world, she naked except for her hat, and he full of tortured desires. The festivities in Havana come on the television, and she begins to speak about the Cuba she has never known and will never know, her imaginary homeland, which exists for her only in photographs, narrative fragments, and half-remembered family recollections. Then she removes her hat, and the extent of her plight becomes apparent.

The scene is marvelously controlled. In hard, driving, unsentimental sentences, and with superb dialogue, Roth shows us Kepesh as we have never before seen him, a man enraptured, at last, not by himself but by the struggles of another person, no longer monstrously in thrall to a rampant sexual egoism. We see a changed man, perhaps a better man. But it is too late. To adapt Kafka, there is infinite hope but not for him.

What are we to make of Philip Roth's astounding productivity, his relentless will to create? In 1960, not long into his writing life, he marveled at the fantastic nature of contemporary reality.

The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
From the archives:

"An Underhistory of Mid-Century America" (October 1997)
A Dantean novel, to be talked about for years to come. A review of Don DeLillo's Underworld. By Tom LeClair

Through a long, difficult career, tainted by hypercelebrity and accusations of misogyny, Roth has remained true to his youthful vision, to his mission of documenting the defining particulars of his age in fiction, of submerging himself in waves of contemporary reality, of covering the world in language. No other living American writer—not the fancily overwriting Bellow, with his demented epistoler anti-hero Herzog; not Updike, with his family of Rabbits and their hick everyman musings; not Don DeLillo, with his cast of paranoids—has created characters quite as memorable or as alive as Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh, or endowed the modern novel with such philosophical urgency, making us think that fiction still matters.

There is a reason for this, I think. Updike's vision of the world is essentially benign; he is a professional writer, prolific, comfortable with his talent and with American affluence, seemingly selecting his subjects with the insouciance of a child—what will it be today, the court of Hamlet or miscegenation in Brazil? He is also a believer in God, so he has his consolation. Bellow, though agnostic, unfashionably believes in the soul; to him, empirical reality is all we can know but not all there is. This other reality is always sending us hints that we cannot receive without art. As for DeLillo, if he believes in anything, it is the power of conspiracies, the mysterious networks and covert connections that shape our lives.

But Philip Roth believes in nothing except the world of his fiction. He is fearlessly beholden to no one. He is a hard nihilist. All political schemes to remake the world, he seems to be saying in recent novels, are doomed to failure. His fictional alter egos, his tortured, superfluous men, are resolutely earthbound, never lifting their heads to look at the stars as they muse on the futility of ambition in the face of certain annihilation. Their only respite is found in a kind of intense erotic abandon, a willful succumbing to preposterous desires—and, as David Kepesh puts it, to the hope generated by the relentless "stupidity of being oneself," to the "unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all."

But poor Kepesh is left at the end of this very strange and poignant novel without even the small consolation of hope. He is left, in fact, holding in his hands the diseased breast of the woman he once loved and longed to possess, a woman who, at the age of thirty-two, may soon be nothing and nobody at all. She could be gone—and before he is. That, for Kepesh, is the final indignity, the bleakest truth of all.