While the title creature of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal is drawn from a Yeats poem, a gimlet-eyed reader might attribute the reference to the dead horse that Roth continues to beat in this slight, disappointing work.
Roth, at his best, seems to have direct access to the darker aspects of humanity; his most brilliant work makes ample use of that knowledge, reflecting the stark hideousness of human nature, as Roth reports back as a journalist of sorts from the battleground where desire and lust and morality collide. When his dispatches strike the right febrile but disciplined pith his prose has very few equals. His style unites with the operation of his fevered mind; it explodes with a street-wise lyricism, a conversational poeticism that is so entertaining that subtextual analysis becomes awkward; your brain struggles to keep up, digesting as quickly as possible the philosophical subtext that makes his best work complete. Using the brain instead of the heart to feel it – you’ll compromise the emotional response. The themes and symbolism unfailingly come full circle, while the protagonist, overcome by flaws, finds himself lost in a forest of his own construction. Roth’s fiction is compelling because his protagonists, from Portnoy to Zuckerman to Mickey Sabbath, strike too close to home: we share the flaws they accentuate, as the emotions evoked in his prose ripen.
Roth’s last three novels were arguably his three best novels: original and selfless, more emotionally moving and artful than anything since The Counterlife, the “American Trilogy” chronicled not Roth’s perversions, but those of society. With an impotent, sexually uninterested alter-ego (Nathan Zuckerman, after cancer surgery) Roth was able to treat everything without the burden of sexual activity; everything, including the politics of coitus, was considered, for the first time, from a perspective that might be considered objective. We finally saw, after all those years, how Roth saw himself in the world, how man fit into his conception of the American pastoral: searching for something, art or politics, sex or vice or love, to hold on to, something real, some basis for definition in a society that offered so many alternatives, none of them designed for his protagonist. The “Human Stain,” we saw, was the stain of Cain, perhaps, of a man lost, unable to find himself, each one an outcast in a system thriving on what amounts to systemic conformity.
When Roth is less than great, he tends to drift into self-parody – he seems to write for the sake of writing, and, like someone just off Freud’s couch, he repeats mantras of the moment, analyzing himself from different angles but inevitably coming to the conclusion, he came to so many times before, both in the book and in his career. The Dying Animal is less than great; its pencil-point neuroticism – its Freudian undercurrents – have the same insidious scent of the yellowing pages of seldom-considered Roth from years past, novels such as Letting Go and The Ghost Writer. Those novels seemed to reveal the intellectual stagnation that Roth escaped with such lithe grace and wit in the late eighties and nineties. The Dying Animal reads like parody of those middle-period works, which in turn sounded like parodies of his earlier works, especially Portnoy’s Complaint.
With the “American Trilogy,” I got the impression that Roth realized that the type of self-analysis – his confessional literature, the exposition of the inky recesses of his soul, which we return to in The Dying Animal – was becoming tiresome. Roth was reacting to his own overly-internalized previous work, and was trying to bust out with novels that flexed their muscles on a larger proscenium. He seemed to examine his soul in the context of the world – he broke out of the arrogant solipsism of his earlier books, the sexual hierarchy that trivialized anything that was not emotionally released in orgiastic mudslides. Yet The Dying Animal is redolent with what Rothian clichés – mock shrink confessionals and self-dissection, scenes of sexual perversion and coffee table philosophical banter, elements that, if approached with a refreshed vigor, can turn standard material into modern classic (see Portnoy’s Complaint).
The Dying Animal has Roth returning to the most unappealing style of literature he produces: the kind of self-loathing self-examination that is more about the little boy shocking his parents than a struggle for insight that is universal (or as universal as a self-absorbed neurotic can get). The book certainly has some fine moments, certain phrases and metaphors that demonstrate the animal can still sprint. But overall, Roth has written far more lyrically in other works; the prose here is baked and dry, with too little of the orgasmic, free-wheeling sensuality of his best writing; sentences dull as slate slabs grate against each as he fails to find his natural rhythm.
The narrator and protagonist David Kepesh, for example, describes his willful lack of subtlety by noting “The French art of being flirtatious is of no interest to me. The savage urge is. No, this is not seduction. This is comedy. It is the comedy of creating a connection that is not the connection – that cannot begin to compete with the connection – created unartificially by lust.” It’s a fantastic notion, but it’s clumsily expressed; stylistically, the clauses seem far too disjointed. The passage argues for the superiority of the primal versus the artificial in the ritual of mating, yet its very structure is mannered and artificial, stylistically impeaching its own argument. Ultimately, the conversational tone that’s Roth is trying to create sounds faked and stiff. This devolution in theme and style is upsetting and disappointing: Roth is too fine a writer, too fearless, to be merely dependable.
The novel, like so many of Roth’s previous works, is about a man’s struggle to maintain his self-defined moral standards when they conflict with the life he’s leading. Indeed, Roth protagonists are Nietzscheian, defining their ethological beliefs on a very personal scale. In The Dying Animal, Kepesh, a seventy-year old professor and critic, aspires to be a Nietzscheian ubermensch: completely self-reliant, his morality self-defined and flexible. Love, an attachment, is to be avoided, and sex, self-gratification, is the ultimate goal. His art is sex, not love: “Why but for the pleasure do I choose to live as I do, imposing as few constraints on my independence as possible?” Kepesh has decided, in The Dying Animal, that sex – the physical act – is truth, and that love, and attachment, and everything in the society he criticizes professionally dictates as moral are really impediments on the soul. Gratification is his only reality; he believes in the truth of the orgasm, and nothing else.
Kepesh teaches a course at a New York City college, and has an annual affair with a student from his graduating class. To his dismay, he falls in love with one of these students, a Cuban exile named Consuela. The book details his struggles to redefine himself after he’s been sucked in to the ethological vacuum of love, that wasteland in which man, in a twist on the Socratic notion, becomes divided against himself as he finds his other half. Kepesh turns Consuela into a work of sexual perfection (“she is a work of art, the lucky rare woman who is a work of art, classical art, beauty in its classical form, but alive, alive …”). He molds her into a being who uses sex and attraction as weapons and then falls under the spell he taught her to cast. Kepesh converts her, makes her bow to his sexuality morality, the ethos of the orgasm, and then yields the pulpit: by falling in love, he subjugates himself to her, buys into the sexual power hierarchy he introduced her to, that he once mastered, and then nearly destroys himself for slipping so violently, so powerlessly, into it.
In the scenes in which Consuela’s mastery of Kepesh transcends the bedroom and begins to rule his life, Roth’s prose seems more vital, more natural than it does in the rest of the book. The unmitigated primal sexuality of these scenes is compelling, of course, but Roth turns enough phrases so that the symbolic significance is not neglected by the reader, who might be too overwhelmed by the coarseness of the moment to search for the subtle metaphoric subtext; so Kepesh records: “It was the true beginning of her mastery – the mastery into which my mastery had initiated her. I am the author of her mastery of me.” Kepesh’s friend sums up the situation nicely: “You’ll always be powerless with this. You’ll never be in charge … She penetrates you… I’m against it because it’s falling in love. The only obsession everyone wants: ‘love.’”
Kepesh never fully folds back into his self. He never again masters his own soul, never gets back within his own morality. He’s mixed love and sex after restricting them for so long in the recesses of his mind, and the weight of this compound brings his ethological structure crashing down around him. He looks outward, toward some other repository of truth to seek some sort of affirmation. The book, we slowly begin to realize, is Kepesh in monologue, talking to someone whose identity is never clear; Kepesh is telling his story, and we realize that he’s looking for someone to tell him he’s right, to tell him what he needs to hear, and we see the man in full, bewildered by his own power, lost in the Byzantine complexity of his own sexuality, something he thought he controlled with his rules.
As in Portnoy’s Complaint, there’s a voyeuristic shock that comes from reading the novel; realizing we shouldn’t be hearing the sexual confessions of a broken man, we experience what amounts to literary sexuality. The thematic architecture is well designed but the distinctions and contrasts explored – between love and sex, reality and perception, artificiality and humanity – are Roth’s bread and butter, and, this time, the bread is stale. And examining the philosophical subtext, Roth is using Kepesh to demonstrate the insurmountable artifice of society (Kepesh is a crusader against superficiality and pretense) but it’s something he’s done so many times before, even with this character. The brilliant scene in The Professor of Desire in which Kepesh dreams that he meets a whore who slept with Kafka expressed more about the nature of sex and literature, sex and artifice, and sex and art than the entirety ofThe Dying Animal; that scene had a flair, an imagination, that is sorely lacking in this novel.
Roth is brilliant, and he knows it, and that may be his problem; he knows his perversions so well that he can mine them book after book (he’s done it most of his career, with some exceptions including The American Trilogy, Our Gang, and, to a certain extent, “Goodbye, Columbus”) and be praised for it. He can establish his legacy by dissecting his self. Let’s hope he returns, however, with something new to explore, some new flesh without the scars inflicted by his own pen.