Sick with Desire

The Dying Animal

by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 156 pp., $23.00

Philip Roth’s output of fiction in the seventh decade of his life has been astonishing for both quality and quantity. It has been to critics and fellow novelists a spectacle to marvel at, an awe-inspiring display of energy, like the sustained eruption of a volcano that many observers supposed to be—not extinct, certainly, but perhaps past the peak of its active life. One might indeed have been forgiven for thinking that Sabbath’s Theater (1995) was the final explosive discharge of the author’s imaginative obsessions, sex and death—specifically, the affirmation of sexual experiment and transgression as an existential defiance of death, all the more authentic for being ultimately doomed to failure. Micky Sabbath, who boasts of having fitted in the rest of his life around fucking while most men do the reverse, was a kind of demonic Portnoy—amoral, shameless, and gross in his polymorphously perverse appetites, inconsolable at the death of the one woman who was capable of satisfying them, and startlingly explicit in chronicling them. Even Martin Amis admitted to being shocked. Surely, one thought, Roth could go no further. Surely this was the apocalyptic, pyrotechnic finale of his career, after which anything else could only be an anticlimax.

How wrong we were. What followed, with breathtaking rapidity, were three long novels, American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), a fictional project more ambitious than anything Roth had attempted before, and a triumphantly successful one. In these books he adopted something like the model of the classic realist novel, in which individual fortunes are traced across a panorama of social change and historical events, the individual and the social illuminating and borrowing significance from each other in the process. Sex is still vitally important to the characters, but not all-important. Their lives are also affected by and illustrative of profound convulsions, conflicts, and crises in American social and political life over the past half-century: racial tension, terrorism, the Vietnam War, the collapse of traditional industries, and with them whole communities such as the Newark in which Roth himself grew up, recalled in several places with remarkable vividness and unsentimental affection. The trilogy is a kind of elegy for the death of the American Dream as it seemed to present itself in the innocent and hopeful 1950s, and has been widely and deservedly acclaimed.

Having achieved so much in such a short space of time Roth might have been expected to take a well-earned rest from literary composition, but only a year after publishing The Human Stain he has produced yet another novel. It is a short one, and thematically it reverts to Roth’s old preoccupation with the sexual life, especially the sexual lives of men; but in form it is another new departure for this resourceful novelist. If it lacks the broad social vision of the three novels that came before, it is nevertheless a tour de force of considerable power, not least the power to challenge (and in some cases probably offend)…

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