Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Dying AnimalThe Dying Animal by Philip Roth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

""The transition from thinking of someone in the way you've always thought of that person [...] to whatever signifies to you [...] that the person is close to death, is dying, I experienced at that moment not only as a shock but as a betrayal."

Philip Roth's The Dying Animal (2001) closes the David Kepesh trilogy that the author began with The Breast and continued with The Professor of Desire, a book that I have not read and now doubt that I ever will.

The book under review, ostensibly about the human animal dying, revolves around three deaths: one - George's - is shown in its entire horrifying detail. Two other deaths, Consuela's and Kepesh's own, are still in progress. Consuela reaches to sexually colored acts to qualm her fear of dying. Kepesh seems to be clinging to life mainly through indulging in sex. Even the graphic description of George's death is "enriched" by sexual motifs. I suspect that Mr. Roth's goal is to show the eternal dance of Thanatos and Eros and illustrate his thesis that "[s]ex is [...] the revenge on death." But then why all the juicy bits? Why the details of physiology, like the fascination with bodily fluids, and why the mechanics, like describing the hand moving a particular way? Why do I feel soiled when I read a book by Mr. Roth, despite the obvious depth of his writing when he occasionally focuses on something other than sex?

While The Dying Animal deals with crucial questions of human existence and contains truly outstanding passages of prose its main focus and the underpinning of the entire literary structure is the study of professor Kepesh's sexual urges and the ways in which he achieves gratification. To make it clear, there is nothing wrong with portraying characters overwhelmed by sexual obsessions: Mr. Roth himself did it in a masterful way in his extraordinary Portnoy's Complaint . Yet the intensely exhibitionistic way that the author writes about the "chaos of eros" and the inclusion of salacious details make it clear to me that he just plain likes writing about sexual behaviors. The reader is entitled to wonder: maybe Mr. Roth achieves gratification by exposing his private erotic thoughts to the world?

Some readers will likely find offensive the combination of male erection and breast cancer, accompanied by Schubert's Death and the Maiden quintet. I find it pathetic instead. References to menstruation are just pretentious and immature. It is symptomatic that for me the highpoint of the novel was the mention of Velásquez' Las Meninas because it reminded me of a true literary masterpiece I have recently read - The Roads to Santiago.

Philip Roth may be a great writer, but this compulsion to exhibit his personal obsessions turns me off. It's like Facebook, minus the cat pictures.

Two stars.

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