We seem to be on familiar ground in the opening pages of The Breast. The hero, David Alan Kepesh, has Alex Portnoy’s verbal gifts, his irony, his apparent public success, and his private hypochondria. If his life appears more stable than Portnoy’s, so much the better, for Roth’s specialty is pulling out the rug. We can be fairly sure that this Stony Brook professor of comparative literature, with his regular bowels and his tidy, if monotonous, modus vivendi with a nice young schoolteacher, is in for some awful surprise. When Kepesh gets an itch in the groin and becomes a kind of monogamous debauchee, grateful to be able to take the initiative with patient, neglected Claire, we know we won’t get any Lawrentian smarm about the dark wisdom of the body. In Roth’s work strong feelings, especially in the pelvic region, are always symptoms.
Kepesh deteriorates, all right, but not in a foreseeable way. In a few cataclysmic hours he suffers “a hermaphroditic explosion of chromosomes” and wakes up in Lenox Hill Hospital to find himself transformed into a 155-pound, dirigible-shaped female breast, with a five-inch nipple that’s histologically reminiscent of his lamented penis. At the time of the soliloquy that constitutes the narrative, he has been living in a hammock for fifteen months, blind but not deaf, fed and drained by tubes, with his world constricted to doctors and nurses and a few visitors who do their best to treat this freak as the man he still is beneath his areola.
But the novelty of The Breast doesn’t lie in its situation. Roth’s work since Portnoy has been full of comic surrealism, and what happens to Kepesh is no more implausible than the fate of the talent scout Lippman, for example, in the brilliant story “On the Air.” What is noteworthy is that Roth, having chosen a story line that looks ideally suited to his taste for outrageous sexual farce, has side-stepped the opportunity and instead written a work of high seriousness. The Breast has its laughs, but they seem like indulgences Roth has permitted himself along the way to an oblique, cryptic statement about human dignity and resourcefulness.
Kepesh’s plight quickly ceases to be funny as attention is diverted from his physical state to his agony of spirit. How can a man accommodate himself to the unthinkable? Why does the will refuse to surrender when the mind sees no escape? Kepesh’s complaint, unlike Portnoy’s, begins to subside as his dormant courage stirs. At the end Kepesh, now acquainted with his strength, dares to quote us Rilke’s sonnet, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with its bald concluding imperative: “You must change your life.” Even hedged with sarcasm and ambiguity, the message is striking. It’s as if Roth had wearied of the querulous, sardonic Portnoy and had decided to let Dr. Spielvogel have his say.
The shift of emphasis comes with notable suddenness after Roth’s venture into …