The Dying Animal
The Literature of Entitlement
There is an irony at the centre of Philip Roth's 2001 novel The Dying Animal that is also the novella's plot twist. Much of the book is an account of someone no longer young (the narrator David Kepesh is in his early sixties) who falls traumatically in love with twenty four year old ex-student, Consuela. However, by the end of the book it is the youthful Consuela who seems more likely to be the dying animal: she has a forty percent chance of death from breast cancer. There is understandable pathos to this tale of a man growing old, and of a young woman's illness, but the first person narrator rarely elicits sympathy even as he demands a certain type of narrative complicity. It is his account we hear, and the only means of escaping from his often selfish, sometimes cruel and always lustful point of view is to put the book aside altogether. Where other American writers of Roth's generation like John Updike and Saul Bellow are less claustrophobically inclined to hold to point of view, even if Roth is perhaps the most adventurous when it comes to playing with narrative form (in the Zuckerman books for example), Roth frequently expects a monomaniacal collusion, a singular perspective on the narrator's part that expects us to feel pity when contempt would be more appropriate, sadness when anger would be justifiable, and glee when mortification would seem a fair response.
An example of the latter comes when the narrator explains how he would seduce a student each term after the course as he clinically lays out the rules of the game, leaving us in no doubt that a young woman is the object of his prey. This is the professor as the big bad wolf, except that Little Red Riding Hood has passed through the sexual revolution and needn't be quite the hapless victim of the Grimms' tale, but instead the young lady intrigued by the idea of a much older lover. When he talks of his seduction of Consuela he notes that she thinks that he is "interested in who I am" "That is true", the narrator muses, "but I am curious about who she is because I want to fuck her. I don't need all of this great interest in Kafka and Velasquez. Having this conversation with her, I am thinking, How much more am I going to have to go through? Three hours? Four?" A page later and the narrator adds, "I want to fuck this girl, and yes, I'll have to put up with some sort of veiling, but it's a means to an end. How much of this is cunning? I'd like to think all of it is." That last sentence is a wink to the reader - a belief that we, like Kepesh, only want one thing.
Now an example of eliciting pity rather than contempt comes when David and Consuela split up, and David fails to arrive at Consuela's graduation party, claiming his car broke down on the way to New Jersey. Consuela knows it is a lie (his car is almost new) and finishes the affair. "Of course it was as well for both of us that it ended, but it wasn't my plan to end it, and I was bereft afterward. I was depressed off and on for nearly three years." A moment of potential disapproval on the reader's part gets turned around as a moment of pathos for the narrator. Instead of comprehending Consuela's pain, the narrator immediately demands that we acknowledge his own. Instead of focusing on his lie and seeing Kepesh getting what he deserves, Roth asks us instead to immerse ourselves in the narrator's loss. "But it was an awful time, a futile time, and it was either study Beethoven and enter his mind or stay in my own mind and replay all the scenes of her I could remember - replay worst of all the reckless thing I did by not going to her graduation party."
If the lie to Consuela is a small lie with huge implications, then what about a big lie with small implications? If David manages to make us feel sadness over anger, should we feel contempt or pity when he lies to his long-term, casual lover Carolyn? One day Carolyn spies a tampon in the bathroom and wonders whose it is. (It is Consuela's) "You are fucking other women. Tell me the truth...and then I'm going. I don't like this. I had two husbands who fucked other women. I didn't like it then and I don't like it now. And least of all with you...There aren't many like me, David. I have an interest in what you have an interest in. I understand what's what. Harmonious hedonism. I am one in a million, idiot - so how could you possibly do this?" David claims his married friend George sometimes uses the apartment for assignations and it must have been one of his lovers. Carolyn insists he is lying, but the narrator keeps adding details to the lie: "He uses the bed in the guest room. He is my friend. His marriage is not paradise. He reminds me of myself when I was married. George feels pure only in his transgressions." Carolyn stays, with David telling us that, "it was a fierce tense situation, but by bluntly lying right into her face, I survived, and, fortunately, she did not leave me when I needed her most. She left only later, and at my request." It is that phrase "she did not leave me when I needed her most" that works as the inverse of the earlier "I'd like to think all of it is." In each instance Roth demands the complicit when we might find ourselves wishing we were emotionally elsewhere, musing over how Consuela was feeling that night in Kepesh's apartment, or what might have been going through Carolyn's mind after finding that Tampon. Just because the novel is in the first person, this doesn't mean it cannot wonder how other people might feel, and yet it is Roth's purpose to deny that ready possibility.
We could argue over the book's egotism and misogyny, reading it against the grain of its own intentions, but if the book is of interest it resides in its capturing of a mindset: an angle on masculinity that means any feminist or moralistic critical imposition will be working against the text rather than for it, evident in Linda Grant's limited and limiting review in The Guardian. Rather like Henry Miller, Michel Houellebecq, Norman Mailer and even J. M. Coetzee, Roth is often a writer who embeds himself within a masculine viewpoint that asks us to understand what a white male, with feelings of entitlement, and longings in their loins, demands from the world. To impose moral judgement, to insist on seeing the writers' novels as works that demand ethical markings in the margins, is to weaken their force. There is of course a place for such criticism, for the sort of analysis Kate Millett did on Miller and Mailer in Sexual Politics, but what interests us here is TheDying Animal's investigation of entitlement as possession. If the book is of import it seems to reside there, in Roth's attempt to explore white male anxieties partly through the power of their social and historical place. If in each of the three instances we have given where a feeling of glee, sadness and pity are elicited over mortification, anger and contempt, then they are underpinned by the centrality of the central character - a figure who is nothing if not the centre of the world as a white, upper middle-class male.
It is as though cultural credentials join forces with male sexual domination, with David the man who might talk about Velasquez being merely an obstacle to getting a woman into bed, but for all the talk of high culture proving irrelevant next to primary urges, a lot of high culture gets talked about nevertheless. The book references Kafka and Mark Twain, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, Modigliani and Picasso. Consuela's forehead is compared to a Brancusi, and the narrator acknowledges the cultural credentials of his apartment, and its sexual allure: "I have a pleasant, orderly duplex apartment, they see my large library, aisles of double-faced bookshelves that house a lifetime's reading and take up almost the entire downstairs floor, they see my piano, they see my devotion to what I do, and they stay." This is cultural capital aplenty, David's way of both getting women into his bed, and hoping to keep rival lovers out of his mind, however unsuccessfully when thinking of Consuela. "I was never at peace about Consuela; never could I forget the five boys she had fucked before me, two of whom turned out to be brothers, one her lover at eighteen, the other when she was twenty - Cuban brothers, Bergen County's wealthy Villareal brothers, and another cause of suffering." Yet these are not men of great culture. As the narrator says, "you see, I think that in me Consuela senses a possessable version of her family's refinement, of that unrecoverable aristocratic past that is more or less a myth to her." Kepesh may see culture as the means to a sexual end, but it is his method of attack, and a sixty-two-year-old man will not have the swarthy youthfulness of the Villareal brothers, just as they won't have his double-faced bookcases. "Of course. There they all were at the party, pressing in on her, surrounding her, dark, handsome, muscular, mannerly, young, and she realized. What am I doing with this old man?" Yet the narrator has a perspective: he seems to have within his ageing body an angle that matches his maturity: he is a man who doesn't only see with his own experienced eye, but also the eye of the culture that he has voraciously absorbed.
What makes Roth's book interesting is the anxieties it explores rather than the moral arc it reveals. There isn't much of an arc here: it is Consuela who ends up with breast cancer, not the narrator who ends up with testicular cancer, or impotence. The damage is done at one remove and emphasizes all the more the entitlement perspective of the great white male. When near the end of the book he sees Consuela, years after their affair and after she has announced that she has breast cancer, David's capacity for empathy is still less evident than his desire for Consuela's body. "We went into the living room, and there again I embraced her, and she pushed her body to me, and you feel her tits, the beautiful tits, and you see over her shoulder the beautiful buttocks. You see the beautiful body. She's now in her thirties, thirty-two, and not less but more lovely..."The subject might be her personal despair, but she is still the object of his desire, as we might recall the earlier accounts of Kepesh's life in literary form, Roth's The Professor of Desire, with its youthfully promiscuous central character, and The Breast, where Kepesh literally turned into one. Here is a man who can't get sex out of his head, a professor of desire where sex and culture are intertwined. Earlier, while trying to forget Consuela after she leaves him, he imagines himself "sitting at my piano while she stood naked beside me. We had once enacted just such a tableau in the flesh, so I was as much remembering as imagining. I had asked her if she would take off her clothes and let me look at her while I played the Mozart sonata in C Minor, and she obliged." There is no lesson here for Kepesh in the moral sense; only in the aesthetic. He is a man who vacillates between sexual longing and aesthetic sublimation, between bodily lust and artistic contemplation. Another writer might have pushed the moral arc and the compassionate angle, with the narrator fretting over his own impending frailty only to see it in the woman whose beauty he so admired, and thus sees in her the useless futility of lusting after women, and empathy for what she is going through.
Now we don't want to claim that there is no compassion towards Consuela; more that Roth's entitlement perspective makes any co-feeling secondary to the solipsistic as lustful need or artistic contemplation. If Kant defined the difference between aesthetic beauty from general desire as the capacity for disinterest in the case of the former and its absence in the latter, then the narrator is a man who possesses an interest in both but whose compassionate faculty is less obvious and perhaps all the better for it. If we might not always care much for Kepesh, his often resistant personality at least holds in abeyance marshalling moral arcs that would make the book too easily a study in white male entitlement redeemed. The book's achievement resides instead in the study of such a condition as irredeemable. When near the end of the book Kepesh thinks about Consuela's hair after the chemotherapy, and after she tells him that they will be removing the entire breast, he still thinks in aesthetic terms. "It was appalling to see her without the hat. A woman so young and beautiful with sort of feathery hair, very short, thin, colourless..." "Ten weeks ago they told her they would remove only part of it, and now they tell her they are going to remove the whole thing. Mind you, this is a breast. It's not a small thing." Here is a man who does not see beyond the woman to some ineffable substance, but sees in Consuela a woman truncated, someone with bits missing. She is a woman who wonders whether "after surgery a man will ever love my body again?" as she asks David to photograph her beautiful breasts while they are intact.
If the book were simply about a man who realises that he worships the body but, when it looks like Consuela will die, worships the soul, it would have been more cathartic than problematic, more about assuaging the reader than troubling them. But The Dying Animal wants David as a character not given to ready sacrifice but one always attuned to his own needs and pleasures. When his son comes to him over the mess of his family life and his desire towards his mistress, David wonders why he doesn't leave, and the son thinks that "no one would survive, everybody would have a breakdown, the suffering would be too great all around." The narrator realises that "what's implicit is how much more honourable he is than the father who walked out on him when he was eight." Any regret here seems secondary to irritation at his son's inability to walk away from unhappiness. And is it this that David is walking into when at the end of the book his anonymous guest says he shouldn't go after Consuela calls to see him, and he insists "someone has to be with her", and the person replies, "think about it. Think. Because if you go, you're finished"?
Has the narrator finally been caught: has the man who walked out on his family and over the following decades insisted on numerous assignations, aware that sex with one woman would lose its pleasure after several years, given in? Even if we accept this is David doing the right thing, it is couched as incarceration, just as earlier in the book he talks of a writer friend escaping his marriage: "it was a human rights issue. Give me liberty or give me death." In different ways, Miller, Mailer, Coetzee and Houllebecque ask similar questions, white men of entitlement wondering what they could extract from life. For Miller in books like Quiet Days in Clichy and Tropic of Cancer it was the pleasures of the flesh and the freedom from gainful employment even if it meant days of hunger. In Mailer's An American Dream the pleasures of the flesh and the eating of that self-same flesh become almost literal. After killing his wife, Rojack sits with his maid, saying, "Ruta and I would sit down to eat. The two of us would sup on Deborah's flesh, we would eat for days: the deepest poisons in us would be released from our cells, I would digest my wife's curse before it could form. And this idea was thrilling to me." In Houellebecq and Coetzee, the men are more constrained, figures looking on or slightly locked out, but still feeling they are men entitled to a share of the sexual pie. In Whatever and Atomized, Our Hero and Bruno are lustful and hopeful, desperate and despairing, men who want in on the act but often feel their status diminished to understudies who never get to perform. Our Hero may believe he has a decent job but it doesn't give him much power in the social world of sexual possibility. In Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee shows us men who are no longer so young but still with strong sex drives. In Disgrace this leads to the disgrace of the very title as David Lurie loses his job at a South African university, and in Diary of Bad Yearthe central character puts in his diary the thoughts he has for his cleaner: "My first glimpse of her was in the laundry room...the last thing I was expecting was such an apparition; also because the tomato-red shift shirt she wore was so startling in its brevity." This could easily be a passage from Roth.
These are all very different works by very different sensibilities, and of course many see Houellebecq as little more than an opportunistic hack and Coetzee one of the greatest of modern writers. Our purpose isn't to judge the quality, more to ask what they have in common, or rather to wonder whether they might have a common reader. There is a sensibility at work in The Dying Animal and the other books we've mentioned, that addresses, sometimes complacently, sometimes not, what a wealthy white man's entitlements happen to be. These are men who are not fighting for anything, as a black man might, or a woman or a person who is physically impaired. When Roth mentions the writer friend getting out of a marriage as a human rights issue he might have a point but it's a small one that leads, inevitably, to hyperbole: it is not the same thing as a black man innocently on death row, a woman fighting for gender equality, a person injured in an industrial accident or a war veteran looking for compensation.
This can make the books hopelessly self-pitying or worryingly self-regarding, but that can often be the easy judgement of someone who wants from literature the socially ameliorative: that a book's purpose is to make the world a better place, to point up injustices and to point out ways in which life demands improvement. But equally isn't literature's point and purpose to complicate as much as ameliorate, to trouble us with figures of ambivalent identification? With a literature of entitlement there is often an implicit assumption about a character's status in the world, but a sense that we should be wary of taking too seriously a character who takes for granted the pleasures of the flesh, the social status they enjoy, the socio-economic benefits of the colour of their skin, and the age in which they live. Though the characters in Miller, Mailer etc. we have alluded to in making sense of The Dying Animal cover the thirties through to the end of the century, France, the US and South Africa, nevertheless they all have in common a white man's feeling of freedom and/or authority. If Miller's character in Quiet Days in Clichy can lay claim to the sovereign right of laying as many women as he can, without obligation or responsibility, David Lurie in Disgrace can't quite understand why the university turns against him after he sleeps with a student, an incident not too unlike one we find in another of Roth's books of white entitlement, albeit less subjectively claustrophobic than here, The Human Stain, this time concerning a race row that leads to disgrace.
How seriously can we take these characters in Roth, Mailer etc.? And yet equally if we don't take them seriously the books wouldn't trouble us so much either. They are often characters demanding our interest and our ridicule, our consideration and our disdain. But if they only accessed our ridicule and disdain, the books (of course of varying quality) would be of less concern, perhaps too easily positioning the reader with a value system that insists these are unfortunate figures on the one hand, loathsome on the other. Whether it is Our Hero in Whatever who at one stage sees masturbation as a better option than trying to get laid because there is false hope in the latter but a reality principle in the former, or Mailer's language of cannibalism and health in An American Dream, the books demand our ambivalence. In The Dying Animal, this hesitancy could have been more arced if the narrator happened to be narcissistic in the first two-thirds of the book and realized the error of his sexual ways in the final section, but that isn't what Roth seeks. The book undeniably possesses irony in the older man living while it looks like the young woman will die, so that all his fears of mortality in the context of falling for a much younger woman count for little, but where does this irony really take place?
Perhaps the book is saying from a certain point of view Kepesh is right to worry and fret because this is his existence and nobody else's. His obligation is to his own pleasures and pains. Such a point of view might be astonishingly narrow and privileged, but it is Kepesh's, and Roth does not want to dilute the book with other perspectives, but for us to feel the singularity of the narrator's own. By way of an analogy, when the car won't start, when the photocopier won't work, or the dinner gets burnt, there will be many more important things that are going on in the world (maybe even in one's own life), but at that given moment it is important. Part of the humour will come from the fact that it is momentarily of immense significance, but equally of minor import viewed from any other angle but one's own, and at any other time. A literature of entitlement possesses something of this important insignificance, where a literature focused on third world struggle, for example, does not. In, say, Ousmane Sembene's Senegalese novel God's Bits of Wood or Mulk Raj Anand's Indian Untouchable, this hardening of a self-centred present isn't the issue. They are books about emancipation from injustice. When in Untouchable the title character is humiliated by his status after he accidentally brushes up against someone on the street, we are unlikely to see this as unfortunate but a fundamental problem of misfortune. The character is born into a social class so humble that even to touch a person from a higher caste means that the other person should go home and wash the untouchable off them. It is unfortunate when one's car breaks down, but misfortune that has someone born into a servitude they will only escape with death. Now some might insist that a literature of entitlement dealing with the unfortunate is a literature of smug triviality, but our purpose here is not to side with a literature of the dispossessed against a literature of entitlement, but instead to say the latter would be of less interest if it did not take seriously the unfortunate aspect of comfortable lives or lives made uncomfortable through what seems much more like personal choice. When Miller's narrators are starving in Paris, we are expected to share the hunger not judge the attitude, even if we're aware that the character's life is one of self-inflicted hardship, unlike the central character in The Untouchable, whose hardship is forced upon him.
However, where the response in The Untouchable is one of un-ironic pathos; in Miller, Roth and the others, there is a sense of immediacy within distance: we might care about the characters' plights, but we might not care for the assumptions that sit behind them. Yet rather than rejecting such works as those by self-regarding white men, better to see them as examinations of a certain type of ethos that we ought to have a problematic relationship with, rather than ready identification for any of the characters. Books about white male entitlement may have a ready readership that appeals to someone who feels their privileges are natural rights, but the books are of interest more because they wonder what those privileges might be, and how hard it is to escape from the assumptions behind them.
The Dying Animal is not a cathartic book partly because we do not feel David has learnt much from his experiences; yet our purpose in reading it might be to find that space. The immediate reader - someone who sides too easily with the narrator - might not be the book's ideal reader, who ought to find a little distance, and, while feeling the narrator's pain, see David Kepesh's values as untenable. Not because they are bad, though they might be, but that they are viewed too narrowly, their universalization impossible, their worth too exclusive. When Kepesh says of his son that "Kenny's difficulties is that he must be admirable whatever the cost", where David has to accept that he is himself not admirable, there is no point Roth ending the book as if he has suddenly become so. As we initially proposed, the book is ironic more than cathartic; it asks us to accept that for all the narrator's sixty-plus years, the dying animal is not Kepesh but the young Consuela, and that she is losing the "most gorgeous breasts I have ever seen", as he earlier describes them. Roth's book like many of his novels, is, then, a narrow work, but isn't at all a specious one. It seeks no false feeling, nor easy character manipulation, and concludes with a man hardly more easy on our conscience than the figure we are introduced to. How one responds to such moral flat-lining may dictate one's response to the book, but we should at least see it for what is, and for what we have argued for here: a book of male entitlement insightfully explored and yet not at all easily absorbed.
© Tony McKibbin