I only recently fell for Philip Roth, having read and loved Goodbye, Columbus over the summer. I came across The Dying Animal in my favorite DC used bookstore (Books for America) and figured it was as good a place as any to continue with my Roth education. I was then unaware, however, that it is actually the third book in the trilogy of Professor David Kepesh novels. To appreciate The Dying Animal it is not necessary to read the other two books first – though (as I have not yet read them and do not know for sure) it may very well be that each book is more complete with the others as context. Regardless, on its own Roth’s short book provides a meditation on innate human nature and the nature of relationships between men and women.
In what could be called the book’s thesis, Professor David Kepesh insists that “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex.” Kepesh, a product of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and longtime proponent of the freedom that it espoused, both proves and refutes this statement as he recounts his obsession with Consuela, a student of his. In his mid-sixties, he has spent his many years as a professor and public television personality bedding countless students and believing himself in control of his sexual life, until Consuela consumes him. Is it love? As he reflects on the jealousy that plagues him and his inability to stop thinking about Consuela, never does he admit to loving her – he always speaks of her in terms of a sexual obsession. Is this because he truly is only obsessed with her, or because the idea of love doesn’t fit in with the worldview he has practiced and promoted for so many years? Kepesh is on many counts – as an ex-husband, father, and teacher – an unlikeable man. In his world, women exist purely as sexual beings. Yes, he sees them as examples of beauty and acknowledges the intelligence of certain women he has known, but for him they exist primarily in terms of their sexuality. I wouldn’t accuse him of misogyny, however – both sexes exist purely as sexual beings in his view. Through Kepesh’s opinions on sex and the progression of his relationship with Consuela, the novel brings up many questions concerning love, sex, and human nature.
Though I often found myself angry at Kepesh, I think the questions he brought up are interesting and helpful in trying to define relationships (if they can be said to be definable). I am interested to read the other Kepesh novels (particularly The Breast - in which, apparently, he is metamorphosed into, of all things, a breast), though I will not be recommending this book to my parents any time soon, as it is certainly the most explicit book I’ve ever come across. A nice little surprise: I realized about halfway into the book the origin of its title. Like so many great things (Things Fall Apart, No Country For Old Men, Slouching Towards Bethlehem…) The Dying Animal takes its very appropriate title from a W.B. Yeats poem. “Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is…”