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The Ghost Rutter

Zoe Heller reviews Philip Roth's novel about a licentious professor

When first we met Professor David Kepesh in 1972, in Philip Roth's novella The Breast, he was a junior academic who had recently awoken to find himself transformed into a onehundred-fifty-five-pound female bosom. Later, Roth toyed with the notion of writing a sequel to The Breast, a book about Kepesh's experiences as a celebrity breast-at-large. (Kepesh was to tour America in a customized padded van, making appearances on The Tonight Show, fucking groupies with his outsize nipple, and so on.) But in the end—wisely, perhaps—the writer abandoned plans for this Mel Brooks-type riff, and the mammary episode was allowed to remain a discrete sui generis absurdity. When next Kepesh appeared, in The Professor of Desire, he was pre-metamorphosis, telling the story of the first half of his life. And now, in Roth's new novel, we find Kepesh in his winter years--no longer a breast, but confronting the hardly less scandalous transformation of old age.

Kepesh is seventy. His hair has turned white. His neck has acquired wattle. He has reached that moment in life when previously invisible body parts "start making themselves distressingly apparent." And yet he is not altogether reduced. For one thing, his libido remains intact. Unlike old Nathan Zuckerman, bleak and diapered in his Connecticut hideaway, Kepesh still wants—and still gets—a lot of sex. Professionally speaking, he is mostly occupied these days as a cultural pundit on National Public Radio and Channel 13, but he also gives a senior seminar in Practical Criticism at a New York college—a seminar attended largely by women; and this pedagogical sideline has proven a rich source of nubile sex partners. "The decades since the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution," he can attest with gloating authority. "This is a generation of astonishing fellators."

The Dying Animal, which takes the form of a late-night sofa-side monologue delivered by Kepesh to a young companion, has quite a lot to say about the sexual revolution. Aside from converting Kepesh back into a forked creature, Roth has taken other liberties with biographical continuity and reconfigured the lackluster 1960s that Kepesh experienced in The Professor of Desire as a glorious decade of erotic adventure. Kepesh is now very proud of how he handled himself in those heady times. His boast is not so much that he abandoned a wife and a son to partake in the carnal festivities. (A lot of people did that, after all.) His particular genius, Kepesh contends, was to separate the era's vital idea of sexual liberty from the hippy-dippy psychedelic chaff, and to master "the discipline of freedom."

Sidestepping all the chaos, Kepesh rigorously plotted a "system" of hedonism, a system that has actually lasted. His confreres of old have all long since retired from the priapic crusade. One by one, they grew weary, fell back into line, succumbed to "the pathos of feminine need." But he, Kepesh, has kept on keeping on, proudly bearing the standard for emancipated manhood.

Because only when you fuck is everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It's not the sex that's the corruption—it's the rest. Sex isn't just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death.

In his defense of his "erotic birthright," Kepesh provides the usual Rothian portion of sparkling rant. His paeans to the vanguard girls of the '60s—the sassy females who "democratized the entitlement to pleasure"—have some rather gruesome purple moments. (His phrase about "a generation drawing their conclusions from their cunts" still haunts me.) Yet on the subject of the married world—the idiots who have opted for "the childishness of coupling"—his tirades are horridly funny. Unfair, naturally, but deliciously so.

In one of the magazines, I read recently about a famous media couple married thirty-four years and the marvelous achievement of their learning to bear each other. Proudly the husband told the reporter, "My wife and I have a saying that you can tell the health of a marriage by the number of teeth marks on your tongue." I wonder, when I'm around such people, What are they being punished for? Thirty-four years. One stands in awe of the masochistic rigor required.

Against such righteous, unexamined convention-following, Kepesh sets the ruthless efficiency of his own arrangements. With his orderly Manhattan duplex, his books, his piano, his Kafka memorabilia, and his regular bouts of carnal pleasure, he is, he would have us believe, a man who has finally resolved the question of how to live.

Of course, since Kepesh is a Rothian protagonist, and bound to self-incriminate, the problems with him and his "system" are not so difficult to spot. By his own admission, others have had to pay a steep price for his freedom. His son Kenny was the first and the most notable sacrifice to his sensual ambitions ("I knew I could take only myself over the wall"); and if Kenny has grown up to be a wounded, suffering, "ridiculous" adult, it is largely Kepesh's own doing. "The consequences of being what I am are long term," he observes. "These domestic disasters are dynastic."

There have been other casualties, too. Those sexy pioneer women of the '60s whom he celebrates so fulsomely have not fared particularly well in the revolution's aftermath. From time to time, they turn up at his door, ex-girlfriends in middle age, seeking refuge from the grim millennial dating scene. They sit forlornly on his couch, telling their war stories and wondering plaintively if they have missed the boat for family life and kids. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes Kepesh magnanimously allows them to stay the night. It never occurs to him, as it is surely meant to occur to us, that their loneliness might be a legacy of precisely the era that he hallows. His only thought is to chide them for their maternal urges ("the standard unthinking"), and to privately lament how poorly they have aged.

All of this would be indictment enough, perhaps. But the hardest knock of all to the Kepesh way is yet to come, in the story that he tells of his affair with a Cuban-American woman named Consuela Castillo. She is a classic Rothian sex goddess—a belle dame sans merci with pornographic underwear. She is one of his Practical Criticism finds; he met her eight years ago, when she was twenty-four. The fact that Consuela is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and that her interest in cultural matters is restricted to a sort of genteel, middlebrow reverence ("I marvel at the arts," she tells Kepesh, like one of those women in the television ads for The New York Times), only underscores the magnificence of her bedroom genius.

She has "a polished forehead of a smooth, Brancusi elegance." She has sleek pubic hair. She has characterful genitalia. (When she comes, Kepesh explains with connoisseurial diligence, her vulva gets pushed out, "like a bivalve's soft, unsegmented, bubbling-forth body.") And--lest we imagine that the bosom business has altogether been put to rest--it just so happens that the most compelling of Consuela's many compelling features is her luscious, gargantuan embonpoint. That's right, the breasts--documented variously as "a D cup," "powerful, beautiful breasts," "gorgeous breasts," "really big, beautiful breasts," "round, full, perfect—the type with a nipple-like a saucer ... the big, pale, rosy-brown nipple that is so very stirring," "the tits—the beautiful tits"—are what really do Kepesh in.

In the beginning, the affair with Consuela proceeds along standard Kepeshian lines: perfectly gratifying to the professor and perfectly unthreatening. The decisive moment occurs one night after Kepesh—feeling a bit bored—has straddled Consuela and "fucked her mouth" with particular ferocity. Consuela, still recumbent, glares at him and snaps her teeth. "Suddenly. Cruelly. At me. It wasn't an act. It was instinctive... The instinctual girl bursting not just the container of her vanity but the captivity of her cozy Cuban home."

With this gesture, Kepesh is transported back into his—and his creator's—favorite territory: the primordial swamp of gender warfare, the chaos of eros. He finds himself in love--or at least in the neurotic maelstrom that Roth's heroes take for love. Once toppled from his professorial plinth, there is no end to his humiliation. On one occasion, he is driven to kneeling before his menstruating lady-love and "licking her clean." The relationship officially ended six years ago, but Kepesh's enthrallment did not end with it. Even now, he is not fully recovered from Consuela's spell. Recently she has re-appeared in his life, reviving his obsession and complicating it with the grim news—irony of ironies!—that she has breast cancer.

Clearly Consuela is the embarrassment of Kepesh's grandiose sexual philosophy. Sex is not freedom with a woman like her. It is a primrose path to the comedy of attachment, to the constraining anguish of feelings.

No, not even fucking can stay totally pure and protected. And this is where I fail. ... When two dogs fuck there appears to be purity. There, we think, is pure fucking, among the beasts. But should we discuss it with them, we would probably find that even among dogs there are, in canine form, these crazy distortions of longing, doting, possessiveness, even of love.

Nor is sex really revenge on death. For what is the ailing Consuela if not the ultimate femme fatale—the very emblem of Eros and Thanatos intertwined? And as for sex being the expression of one's truest self—well, Consuela's terrible power is precisely to make Kepesh not himself, to deform him with jealousy, and turn him from a languid professor of desire into a frenzied little boy. "I was at her feet," he says of the menstruation incident. "I was on the floor. My own face was pressed to her flesh like a feeding infant's, so I could see nothing of hers."

Considering what a seigneurial fuss he has kicked up over the years about his blow jobs, we may feel that Kepesh makes rather too much of consuming a young woman's bodily fluids—of allowing her, as one of his horrified friends puts it, to "penetrate" him. This is, after all, a man who started falling out of love with Claire Ovington in The Professor of Desire the moment she shyly confessed that she did not much care for swallowing his semen. Even the wondrous Consuela is initially faulted for the crudeness of her oral technique. ("The instant I began coming, she abruptly stopped and received it like an open drain. I could have been coming into a wastepaper basket.") Frankly, given his history, Kepesh would have to down several tankards of menstrual blood before carping would be in order.

The fact is that a Kepesh mortified and brought low by love is still a pretty awful and pompous Kepesh—still a Kepesh intent on asserting his intellectual and sexual dominance at all times. Consuela slays him, but she never succeeds in murdering his self-regard. Even when he is paying homage to her sublime beauty, he cannot resist inserting himself as the man responsible for unleashing that beauty's potency. She is, he notes, echoing Ezra Pound's lordly kiss-off to H.D., "not the artist but the art itself"—a woman without self-awareness; a gorgeous phenomenon who acquires significance or meaning only when seen by him.

She had only to be there, on view, and the understanding of her importance flowed from me. It was not required of her, any more than it is of a violin concerto or of the moon, that she have any sort of self-conception ... I was Consuela's awareness of herself ... I was the author of her mastery of me.

Now, Roth is not always easy to pin down on these matters; but in this instance it seems safe to say that he is wise to the piggishness of his man. Kepesh's Consuelan reveries are not so different from the drool that Zuckerman and Tarnopol and Portnoy have spilled on various demonic wantons over the years. And yet they are different enough to send up a flare. Kepesh's crowing over "tits" is too emphatically banal. His objectification of Consuela is too textbook. His vanity is too incorrigible and too unwitting. (If Roth were not keen to establish a little distance from his hero, would he outfit him with "an important page-boy" of white hair, a foulard, and a Porsche?) This incarnation of Kepesh—much like the original Kepesh-as-breast—is a reductio ad absurdum of the hedonistic principle. Roth's prose reads like a feminist satire on the chauvinist male gaze.

Which is not to say that Roth offers Kepesh as merely a villain, or as merely a joke. If Roth's intention had been to portray a grotesque, he might simply have revived his old idea and given us Kepesh the Breast on The Tonight Show. No, this Kepesh, however profound his folly, is intended as a serious moral protagonist. The novella's title--taken from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium"--would seem to assure us of that. "Consume my heart away; sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal/It knows not what it is," Kepesh intones in the very depths of his lovesickness. The professor is no Yeats, of course; and there is little indication at any point in this narrative that he is truly ready to trade sensual music for the artifice of eternity. Yet the invocation of the great poet serves well enough as a sort of imprimatur on Kepeshian quandaries: a reminder that matters of high seriousness are at stake. Kepesh may be a creep, but for Roth he is also a doughty wayfarer in the human comedy, a man negotiating, with admirable vim, the conundrums created by his own lusts. He is, in other words, a hero.

Many years ago, Roth chose as the epigraph for his novel Letting Go a line from Wallace Stevens: "The unalterable necessity of being this unalterable animal." It should be abundantly clear by now that writing about the unalterable necessity of being this unalterable animal is itself an unalterable necessity for Philip Roth. He has been ploughing away at the impossible unruliness of male desire—the unresolvable antagonism of id and superego as embodied by twentieth-century American man—for the better part of fifty years. And still he cannot leave it alone. Still he is bent on applying his gorgeous style, his formidable and fractious intellect, to the same tiny patch of libidinal anguish. Rutting and fretting. Fretting and rutting. Not rutting enough. Really great rutting. (Angry, athletic horsey rides.) Rutting on the side. Nice girls who won't swallow. Sirens and sluts who bring chaos. Wives who burn the toast and then eat you alive. Age may not have withered Rothian man, but years ago custom began to stale his limited variety.

The writer is never to be confused with his creations, of course. Roth has entrained in his readers a dread of being caught in that solecism. He is not Kepesh. He is not even Zuckerman. But this cannot be the end of the matter. When a writer chooses to document a set of attitudes as exhaustively as Roth has done, he accords them a certain weight and a certain worth. To hold Roth accountable for the dispiriting strain of woman-hatred and woman-phobia that runs through his novels is not idly to confuse Roth with his characters. It is, rather, to acknowledge that one of the areas in which a writer most nakedly asserts himself or herself is in the choice of subject. Roth's implied moral commentary on Kepesh is all very well, but if he did not believe that an old goat's agonizing about a pneumatic twenty-four-year-old was not somehow representative of the human dilemma—was not deserving of our sympathetic attention—he wouldn't be writing about it, would he?

Were Roth's artistry less fine, the deficiencies of the sexual worldview on which he focuses would be less cruelly felt. But here is one of the most accomplished writers in America, a writer who has chosen to make sex and sexual relations one of his big themes—and his female characters rarely, if ever, transcend the realm of Freudian phantasm or adolescent cartoon. His depictions of sex are only a serial case study in the vagina dentata complex. This is not a "political" failing. It is a failing of empathy—a failing, actually, of literature. The remedy would not be an anodyne "correctness" or a sudden slew of characters conceived as "role models." All that is really required is an extension of Roth's humane interest and imaginative sympathy for the female half of the species.

There are, one knows, readers who do not see, or are not troubled by, Roth's woman problem. But even for these readers, The Dying Animal is likely to carry with it a whiff of bathos. Coming as it does after the richness and the ambition of Roth's American trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain), this short novel has a strong sense of contraction and retrenchment. The most loyal admirer of Roth may feel a certain weary foreboding when she or he comes upon Kepesh, in his second paragraph, unctuously confiding that he is "very vulnerable to female beauty."

Actually, there is some indication that Roth has anticipated this reaction, that he has understood the impatience that his thematic obsession inspires and has cleverly sought to address it. This is a book, after all, about sexual recidivism; its very subject is an old dog's refusal to let his favorite bone lie. It is not unduly fanciful to detect in Kepesh's account of his unmonastic old age the stentorian tones of Roth himself:

Look, I'm not of this age. You can see that. You can hear that. I achieved my goal with a blunt instrument. I took a hammer to domestic life and those who stand watch over it. ... That I'm still a hammerer should be no surprise. Nor is it a surprise that my insistence makes me a comic figure on the order of the village atheist to you who are of the current age and who haven't had to insist on any of this.

It is a pre-emptive defense of sorts, but it is hardly an apology. This is my thing, it says. If you don't like it, don't read it. If Kepesh has any wisdom to offer us, it lies in his slightly horrified acknowledgment that "nothing, nothing is put to rest, however old a man may be." The saga, it seems, continues. The dying animal will be with us unto death.