A man," says David Kepesh, "wouldn‘t have two-thirds of the problems he has if he didn‘t venture off to get fucked. It‘s sex that disorders our normally ordered lives" [p. 33]. And no life was more ordered than
Kepesh‘s. Unmarried, unobligated, unattached, Kepesh lives just the way he wants to, confidently detached from what he views as illusions about romantic love, conventional pieties, and prevailing
mainstream models of normalcy. Until he meets his beautiful student Consuela Castillo. Her breasts, her
vagina, her hair, her skin, her youth, her clothes, her physical poise and emotional composure, her erotic
self-assurance, her Cuban bourgeois background—taken together, everything Consuela is disarms this thinking man. Sustained virtually into his seventh decade by the orderly pursuit of pleasure in life and the
arts, this master strategist of freedom is consumed by sex in its most anguishing form, undone for the first
time ever by the monster of possessive jealousy.
Now eight years have passed since Consuela left him, the twentieth century has ended in a paroxysm of
kitsch and unfulfilled apocalyptic fear, and David Kepesh is seventy, his prodigious erotic career nearing
its own end. But he is spellbound by the memory of Consuela and the unmanageable passion that she
inspired. The Dying Animal is his candid telling of their story, intermixed with thoughtful excursions into
the pertinent subjects that come within the ken of his capacious mind—sexual jealousy, the sexual revolution, the turbulence of the sixties, the cage of family life, pornography, the American Puritan
theocracy—and subjects like aging and dying that pertain to his immediate predicament. Who he is
recounting his story to isn‘t fully disclosed; one only knows that Kepesh is speaking meticulously and at
length to someone in the room with him, either a woman or a man, who occasionally questions or
comments on his story and who issues an ominous warning on the book‘s final page when Consuela,
seriously ill, is about to enter a hospital and Kepesh is confronted with a fateful choice about the
resumption of their affair.
The third novel in the Kepesh series, The Dying Animal is both a tour de force of self-revelation and a
brilliant reckoning of the full range of consequences, in one man‘s life, of the sexual revolution.
1. To begin, answer these questions using the book as your guide. Read aloud the relevant sentences or
passages. a. Why is Janie Wyatt Kepesh‘s hero [pp. 48–58]? b. Why is Caroline Lyons Kepesh‘s lover
[pp. 46–48, 69–76]? c. Why does Miranda stay behind after the party [pp. 7–9]? d. Why does Elena
Hrabovsky come to Kepesh when she‘s unhappy about her life with men? What is Kepesh‘s response to
her unhappiness [pp. 107–110]? e. Why is Kepesh‘s description of Consuela‘s vulva so detailed [p. 103]?
Why the aquatic and artistic references? What human emotion informs this passage?
2. What are the sources of pleasure in Consuela Castillo and David Kepesh‘s relationship? What do they
offer each other? What allows each to "master" the other? Describe Consuela.
3. Why does Kepesh become obsessively jealous? Do his pleasure and jealousy derive from the same
4. What is the place of music in Kepesh‘s life? What about books?
5. After Consuela leaves Kepesh, his friend the poet George O‘Hearn warns him to stay away from her: "This is the pathology in its purest form. . . . You violated the law of aesthetic distance. You
sentimentalized the aesthetic experience with this girl—you personalized it, you sentimentalized it, and you lost the sense of separation essential to your enjoyment" [p. 99]. Why would George suggest, and
Kepesh be receptive to, the notion that sexual relations be governed by aesthetic laws?
6. Kepesh agrees with George that "attachment is ruinous," finds those who voluntarily give up their
freedom "ridiculous," and feels that "marriage at its best is a sure-fire stimulant to the thrills of licentious
subterfuge" [p. 111]. His son Kenny, who struggles to make his own marriage work, accuses him of gross
irresponsibility, of confusing sexual freedom with vulgar self-interest, of behaving like a lecherous fool.
Does the novel resolve these conflicting points of view? Does it endorse one position over the other or
simply bring them into clarifying opposition?
7. Why doesn‘t Kepesh‘s son Kenny listen to his father? Is Kepesh not giving Kenny good advice?
8. In what ways is The Dying Animal about the intersection of America‘s cultural history with David
Kepesh‘s personal history? How does he interpret the sixties? How does the sexual revolution
"revolutionize" his life? What does it cost him?
9. Kepesh argues that family life is childish and that "emancipated manhood never has had a social
spokesman or an educational system. It has no social status because people don‘t want it to have social
status" [p. 112]. Why do people refuse to give "emancipated manhood" social status? Do they give
"emancipated womanhood" social status? If Kepesh were gay or female, would that alter your response
to the book?
10. Why does Roth include the extended section on George O‘Hearn‘s death? What is the motive behind
O‘Hearn‘s final desperate attempt to undress his wife [pp. 121–3]?
11. How does Consuela‘s illness abolish the age difference between her and Kepesh?
12. Even though its last word is "finished," and even though its final pages are filled with anxiety about
death, The Dying Animal is open-ended. Why does Roth choose to close the book in this way? What is
likely to happen to David Kepesh? Will he ignore his listener‘s warning and go to Consuela? If so, will it
be the end of him?
The sexual licence fee
Philip Roth's narrative drive suffers in this coda to his great works, The Dying Animal
The Observer, Sunday 1 July 2001
The Dying Animal
Cape ?12.99, pp156
This isn't properly a continuation of the great stream of novels Philip Roth has produced in the past
decade, rather a coda in which the same preoccupations are far less effectively explored. It would be a
shame for readers to skip that series and start here, tempted perhaps by The Dying Animal's brevity or the Modigliani on its cover, and then wonder what all the fuss was about.
The story is narrated by David Kepesh, not a new character. Now an influential cultural commentator and teacher in New York, he was introduced decades ago in The Breast. The new book is also much concerned with breasts, notably those of Consuela Castillo, a student in Kepesh's practical criticism class. Consuela, self-possessed, conventional seeming, of conservative Cuban parents, doesn't immediately yield, but nor is she deterred by being little more than a third of Kepesh's age.
No sooner has Roth set up this affair than he dives back into the Sixties, to the belated sexual awakening of the narrator - and then, as a 'sidelight', into the seventeenth century and to the history of Merry Mount, a Massachusetts trading post which outraged the Plymouth Puritans with its licence. The rhetorical point is that right from its beginnings, America was home to transgressive institutions as well as righteous ones, but it is made at a certain cost to the narrative drive.
It is also a problem that the vision of sexuality Kepesh had in the Sixties is almost the opposite of his later philosophy, although the difference is glossed over. Back then, sex was more or less a contest between equals and it was a small group of pioneering women who made it so. They are described as 'the first wave of American girls fully implicated in their own desire. No rhetoric, no ideology, just the playing field of pleasure opening out to the bold'.
In the Nineties, the operative word is not desire but lust, not a balance of forces but 'trading dominance, perpetual imbalance... the dominating is the flint, it strikes the spark, it sets it going'. Youth and beauty are what women bring to men. Consuela is described alternately as if she was a zoo specimen and an art object.
Even a particular quirk of her arousal, an involuntary movement of the vulva during climax, is referred both downwards to the animal kingdom ('as though it were related to the oyster or the octopus or the squid, a creature from miles down and eons back') and upwards to the world of art: 'Schiele would have given his eye-teeth to paint it. Picasso would have turned it into a guitar.' Consuela doesn't need to have 'any sort of self-conception', any more than a violin concerto does. And how could a violin concerto be implicated in its own desire?
Late Roth is full of erotic existentialists, even erotic martyrs, men like Mickey Sabbath, for whom sexual disgrace is almost a reward. When David Kepesh in The Dying Animal asserts that: 'It's not the sex that's the corruption - it's the rest', he echoes a formulation from The Human Stain, sex as 'the redeeming corruption that de-idealises the species and keeps us everlastingly mindful of the matter we are'. But to see sex as a de-idealising force can be another way of idealising it, and here the self-assertion seems pathetic rather than tragic or heroic. When Consuela stops being a fetish, she becomes a person, but the erotic spell disappears.
Kepesh may want to claim Thomas Morton of Merry Mount as his personal founding father, but it's hard to imagine a whole country being run along the lines of a dissident settlement, and it seems adolescent to take the transgressive aspect of sex for its entirety. At one point in the book, Kepesh's friend, George, whose married life has been an unbroken chain of adulteries, is dying in hospital surrounded by his family. The wife whom he'd not touched in bed for years 'was, of course, there round the clock'. Those two words - 'of course' - may be the strangest in the book, perhaps even in Roth's oeuvre. Because wanting to follow every erotic impulse as long as you possibly can, and still to have your hand held as you die by someone who loves you, is completely understandable, but it's hardly a defiant fist shaken at an empty cosmos, is it?
In the post-religious world of Philip Roth's fiction, humans do not have immortal souls. Death and desire
is all we are. A S Byatt on a brief and bleak morality tale for our times Everyman Philip Roth Jonathan Cape, 182pp, ?10 ISBN 0224078690
Philip Roth is the great recorder of Darwinian Man - "unaccommodated man", who is no more than "a poor, bare, forked animal", as old King Lear observed. Roth has understood what it means to be a conscious creature, driven by sexual desire towards the death of the body, nothing more. He called an earlier novel The Dying Animal, taking his title from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium", in which the poet describes his soul as "sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal . . ."
Roth's characters inhabit a truly post-religious world, in which we do not have immortal souls, only sick, lively desire, and the dying of the animal. The title of this new, bleak tale is taken from a mediaeval morality play in which Everyman, the human soul, is called by Death to appear before God's judgement seat. He is deserted by his strength, discretion, beauty, knowledge and five wits, leaving only his Good Works to speak for him at the end. Hugo von Hofmannsthal reworked the play in 1911 for the Salzburg Festival, where it is still performed. Timor Mortis conturbat me is an ancient cry, but it sounds different in a world where the Four Last Things - death, judgement, heaven and hell - have been reduced to one, or maybe one and a half. Roth's characters are defensive and defiant of possible judgement of their manifest failings. Saul Bellow's Herzog was in an agony of despair at the meaninglessness of a world without a spiritual dimension, where only human feelings were available in the face of human cruelty and decay. An earlier Roth character, David Kepesh, hero of The Professor of Desire and of The Dying Animal, is apparently more robustly grim. He sees sex as "the revenge on death" - desire as a confrontation of mortality. If there is no more, he will not try to make up more. Desire and death is what we are.
Roth's Everyman is a brief and uncompromising account of one man's death. He is nameless, though his family, wives, children and lovers are named. The book opens with his funeral, and ends with the moment of his death on the operating table. In between, with a blunt and steady progress, the reader sees through his eyes the slow dissolution of his body, marked by a series of increasingly drastic and invasive surgical "interventions", starting with a boyhood hernia and moving through bypasses and prostheses, patchings-up of his heart and veins. It is not told in a straight line - his three marriages, his rejecting sons, his kind-hearted daughter, his bouts of sick and violent desire are woven backwards and forwards, so that the description of his love for his wise and good second wife, Phoebe, comes much later in our reading than his betraying of her trust, and her honest anger. He follows his instincts, which lead to entanglements (and a third marriage) with impossible women. He is self-justifying - he sees his conduct as that of a normal human being, an everyman, which perhaps it is. The nearest he comes to judgement is a summing-up of himself, early in the book: "He was not claiming to be exceptional. Only vulnerable and assailable and confused. And convinced of his right, as an average human being, to be pardoned ultimately for whatever deprivations he may have inflicted upon his innocent children in order not to live deranged half the time."
Pardoned by whom, in a Darwinian world? By himself, or his messed-about family? Does the word have any meaning? Is there a judge? Are the readers judges? We do judge, irascibly even, and then are made to feel an undignified pity.
The body - his body, everyman's body - is the solid certainty in the story. As an old man in retirement he goes to live in the Starfish Beach retirement village on the Jersey coast. He tries to become the painter he thinks he has always wanted to be, and teaches art to a class of retired people. He thinks that if he should ever write an autobiography he would call it The Life and Death of a Male Body, and gives the title to a series of his own abstract paintings. But the class is full of bodily pain in the elderly, and painting
comes to lose its meaning. He broods on his own youth, "the longing for the best of boyhood, for the tubular sprout that was then his body and that rode the waves . . . " - and so on for a perfect, lyrical passage on healthy naked skin and the "advancing, green Atlantic". This vision of youth comes late in the book and is moving because so much thick and obtrusive pain and mess has preceded it and surrounds it.
Roth's writing looks uncompromisingly straightforward but is subtle and clever. Consider the sentence describing Every-man's idea of the suicide of a member of his class, in unbearable arthritic pain. He imagines her swallowing the pills, "slowly swallowing them with her last glass of water, with the last glass of water ever". Her last glass, and then the last glass. The end of a person, the end of the world. The end of the tale is also completely imagined. Roth has earlier described the ante-room of the operating theatre, full of human beings in flimsy gowns and paper slippers, reading newspapers and gossiping about the news, facing perhaps the last breath.
Roth works with things, not with symbols or metaphors, but he chooses them craftily. Everyman's father is a diamond merchant, and takes pleasure in a woman's finger, slipped into a ring with a bright stone, an earthly thing that is "imperishable". Quick visions of these imperishable stones are set against the crumbling flesh and bones all the way through the tale, and at the end, as the unhero goes into unconsciousness, he has a vision of the planet - "the billion-, the trillion,- the quadrillion-carat planet Earth". His desire is renewed, he is ready to set off again, but that is the end. He does not wake. A human story for our times.
A S Byatt's most recent book is The Little Black Book of Stories (Vintage)
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
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
of The 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.