Our societal belief that past a certain age lust is unseemly is a means of protecting ourselves from an inconvenient truth: Desire persists even beyond the body’s ability to meet its physical demands. Yet the lust that figures in so many of Philip Roth’s novels was unseemly to his detractors long before Roth began to near age 70, the age of David Kepesh, the protagonist of “The Breast,” “The Professor of Desire” and the new “The Dying Animal.”
Throughout his career, Roth has refused to prettify lust, refused to deny the desire to possess and even to degrade that, he has insisted, cannot be separated from the male sexual psyche. In “The Dying Animal,” Kepesh, who is recalling an affair that began with his beautiful 24-year-old student Consuela when he was 62, remembers putting his penis in the young woman’s mouth and explains, “I was so bored, you see, by the mechanical blow jobs that, to shock her, I kept her fixed there, kept her steady by holding her hair, by turning a twist of hair in one hand and wrapping it around my fist like a thong, like a strap, like the reins that fasten to the bit of a bridle.” When he’s done, Kepesh and the young woman look each other “cold in the eye” and she snaps her teeth at him. His response to this threat of what she could have done and didn’t is: “at last the forthright, incisive, elemental response from the controlled classical beauty.”
It’s not a pleasant passage, and you can scarcely blame anyone, especially women, for being offended by it. But to raise the objection that it’s ugly or gives offense is to ignore the question of whether it’s true. And this, to me, is the fundamental gap that Roth’s recent work — the trilogy of “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain,” and now this controlled and ferocious coda to the Kepesh books — means to bridge: the chasm that has opened between what is acceptable and what is true.
I don’t think there’s any escaping that, on some level, Roth means to offend, means, like Kepesh with Consuela, to hold us down and put it to us. That isn’t to say that his writing is crude or abusive or that he’s just working us over; he’s too much of a craftsman, interested more in argument than in force. But if you are trying to break through niceties, if you are trying to identify the rapacious in the sexual, then perhaps you have to give offense before you can be heard.
For Kepesh sex is the truest connection. The lead-up to his first seduction of Consuela, when the two are talking about her life, about literature and painting, Kepesh calls “the comedy of creating a connection that is not the connection — that cannot begin to compete with the connection — created unartificially by lust.” He chats with this young woman about Kafka and Velázquez and wonders, “What does any of this have to do with her tits and her skin and the way she carries herself?” What may shock people most about Kepesh is the unmistakable element of worship in that question, and the seeming serenity that his pursuit of sex has brought him. In “The Professor of Desire” sex was a lurking beast ready to devour the stable life Kepesh had built for himself with his devoted, adoring mate. In another version of the ruthless self-invention that characterized every volume of Roth’s trilogy, Kepesh, in “The Dying Animal,” has long since identified (and expunged) the instincts toward marriage and family that he sees as the disruptive factors of life. He attends to his intellectual and carnal pursuits happily, with little room for regret.
Roth does nothing so conventional as use Kepesh’s choice to demonstrate how empty his life is. In one of the novel’s gutsiest moves, the son who despises Kepesh for leaving his mother is conducting his own affair with a younger woman. In “The Dying Animal” sex comes to swallow everyone who tries to deny its power, who has not, as Kepesh has, made some sacrificial offering.
But like most great writing about sex — Henry Miller’s is an exception — Roth’s is profoundly pessimistic. Kepesh can no more silence the instinct toward the companionship he has rejected than the conventional people he disdains can still their sexual urges. And even the sexual urge itself becomes enslaving for Kepesh. He’s so consumed with Consuela that the more she assents to him the more intimidated he becomes. He even drinks her menstrual blood and winds up feeling more at her mercy than ever. “The Dying Animal” becomes a turbulent demonstration of what it is to be caught between two mutually exclusive urges. And the fact that Roth has worked this territory before doesn’t make it any less urgent. In fact, it has never felt more urgent.
The key to the book lies in Kepesh’s memory of the ’60s on campus. What he remembers particularly is a clique of four young women, calling themselves the “Gutter Girls,” who took it upon themselves to become “the female trailblazers of a completely spontaneous sexual change.” They weren’t, he writes, “Bernadette Dohrn or Kathy Boudin. Nor were the Betty Friedans speaking to [them]. The Gutter Girls had no objection to the social or the political argument, but that was the other side of the decade.” Roth is trying to identify a largely overlooked strain of the ’60s that may be the truest. Not the flowery sentimentality of the time (you get the feeling his Gutter Girls may have listened to Donovan — but only because they dreamed about fucking him), and not what Kepesh calls “the communal righteousness.” Their cause was “the libertarianism extending orgiastic permission to the individual and opposed to the traditional interests of the community.”
What’s so bracing about this digression — it’s in many ways the heart of the book — is not just that Roth ennobles these girls’ erotic mission but that he makes you realize that the sexual questions the ’60s gave rise to have never been answered. The peace has never been made between romance and sex.
And so when Roth’s detractors accuse him, as seems inevitable, of telling the same old story, of whining once again about male sexual hunger, it’s important to say that the seemingly small story he is telling in this slender novel has larger resonances. It’s linked to an individualistic strand in American life that counters our liberal democracy in ways that have never been settled or smoothed over.
Some years ago I attended a show of late Picassos at London’s Tate Gallery in which Picasso returned again and again to the figures of the artist and his model. In this series the model’s voluptuousness mocked the old artist’s decrepitude; Picasso linked the artist’s declining sexual potency to the decline in his artistic powers. How, the young model’s very presence seemed to ask, can an old man like you ever hope to capture this? There was an element of frenzied self-loathing and unfunny comedy to the canvases — the artist as a dead-dicked Lear howling in the storm. In the climax of “The Dying Animal,” artist and model, voluptuous deity and ardent worshiper, meet on a level playing field, and the effect is sorrowful, appalling and moving. For Roth, the potency of art seems no less linked to the sexual drive than it did for Picasso. They are both a means of staving off death. The productivity and urgency of Roth’s work for the past decade stand alone in contemporary American fiction. This novel is clearly an attempt to get down what he knows about life and culture. But surely dispatches this urgent have rarely been so honed, so irreducible and hard, so compassionate and unforgiving. There isn’t an American writer working who can touch him.