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 political satire in Our Gang. The protagonist of that work, a president named Trick E. Dixon, is assassinated in the nude and stuffed into a water-filled baggie, to the approval of everyone but his widow, who “thinks that at the very least the President should have been slain in a shirt and a tie and a jacket, like John F. Charisma.” Roth’s humor in Our Gang is literally atrocious; his sense of being politically in the right licenses him to create a depersonalized, paranoid world in which sadistic fantasies are considered chic so long as they’re directed against the right figures. To skim the book is to understand it. In describing The Breast, however, Roth speaks of his “distrust of ‘positions,’ including my own” (NYR interview, October 19); and the book itself moves fitfully toward transcendence, denying us one easy conclusion after another until we’re finally prepared to grasp Kepesh’s humanity without any overlay of ideas.
Reviewers who never cared for Roth’s startling frankness and iconoclasm have already expressed pleasure with what they take to be his reformation. Even Trick E. Dixon, if he were a student of ideological currents in the arts, might be gratified to see our author moving from the aesthetic of Barbara Garson toward that of Henry James. To my mind, however, Our Gang and The Breast stand roughly equidistant from Roth’s best mode, which is neither “political” nor “moral.”
From the very beginning—from the moment when Neil Klugman, on the opening page of “Goodbye, Columbus,”. gets a glimpse of Brenda Patimkin’s rear—Roth’s forte has been the portrayal of compulsives whose humane intelligence can’t save them from their irrationality. The sharpness and energy of his work have to do with a fidelity to the petty idiocies of the unconscious. In Our Gang he takes a holiday from characterization and simply lets fly at the Republicans; in The Breast he goes to the other extreme and, without detectable irony, subjects his hero to earnest lecturing from a psychoanalyst about “strength of character,” “will to live,” and even “Mr. Reality.” What connects these seemingly opposite books is their common flight from the elements of Roth’s finest art.
To be sure, those elements aren’t absent from The Breast. Though Kepesh tells us that “reality has more style” than to punish wishes in a fairy-tale way, it’s possible to infer that his fate is profoundly congruent with his disposition. Roth offers at least one obvious clue: once on Nantucket, with his mistress Claire’s breast in his mouth, Kepesh wanted to leave it there instead of making orthodox love, and he confessed to an envy of her. Lesser indications of slippage in his male identity are scattered through the text. His ego has been bruised in a disastrous marriage; his arrangement with Claire (they have slept together but lived apart) looks like a phobic defense against what he calls the “dependence, or the grinding boredom, or the wild, unfocused yearning” of married couples; he has placed an unusual value on nonvaginal forms of intercourse; and he has almost entirely lost erotic interest in Claire before getting his premonitory itch. It’s still quite a leap from these facts to becoming a female gland—but it also seems unlikely that Kepesh was selected at random by the prankster gods.
If we suppose that Kepesh’s change is an exact condensation of his wishes and fears, the story does make detailed unconscious sense. Kepesh’s fetishizing of Claire’s breast has turned her into a fantasy-mother and himself into a nursing infant; now, it seems, he regresses further and merges himself with the breast as if there were no boundary between self and nurturing world. The breast is the womb and they are both Kepesh. To reach this apparent paradise, though, one must accept castration: the hero becomes blind, limbless, and encased in female tissue like a eunuch. Yet paradoxically the mutilation permits a regrouping of masculine aims on a safer level: the Kepesh who had formerly submitted to Claire’s advances “two, maybe three times a month” is now an imposing, permanently inflated organ, a quasipenis, and he wants it serviced around the clock.
This isn’t just intricate dream logic; it’s also potentially rich irony. The Breast reads like a Midas story for an age whose mystagogues have seriously proposed that the Oedipal film be run backwards until we find ourselves polymorphous, guilt-free infants once again. Kepesh as breast is an object of constant mothering, with feeding and elimination looked after by others, with nonorgasmic pleasure in being rubbed and washed, and with a chance to “sleep the sleep of the sated” as he sways in his hammock. But what is it really like to have an infant’s clamorous needs, and his powerlessness to get them satisfied on his own initiative, and his rage when he understands that a mother’s patience is finite and her love divided?
Roth achieves real pathos in the moments when Kepesh, believing Claire to be too pure for inclusion in his new erotic script, fears he will lose her. Eventually he consents to a form of weaning, restricting himself to a fixed daily period of stimulation, having himself anesthetized before washing, and even accepting a male nurse, who can’t arouse him because, in spite of everything, that would be “homosexual.” Regression looks tempting, Roth seems to say, but—wait till you try it! Adult scruples aren’t so easy to blot out, and stimulation of the skin “from a source unknown to me, seemingly immense and dedicated solely to me and my pleasure,” is finally no substitute for freely exchanged love.
But has Kepesh actually regressed at all? Roth’s irony is blunted by the tendency of his plot to deny any linkage between the hero’s psyche and his outward state. Kepesh’s heroism is measured by his increasing ability to forego explanations and simply acknowledge the technical fact that he is a breast in a hospital. His soliloquy thus has a curious, unintended effect of filibuster. Thanks to Roth’s precise evocations, we as readers have never doubted since page 12 that Kepesh is a breast, and our minds move ahead to consider the poetic justice of this fate. But Roth scorns analysis and insists that his hero is a Job, not a Midas, and we eventually have to agree. Discerning a psychological feast, we’re handed an “existential” crumb: isn’t it grand to endure the absurd?
“You must change your life”—but first, Mr. Reality might add, you must decide what’s wrong with it. Nothing at all is wrong with Kepesh; as the victim of a colossal misfortune he need only keep a stiff upper nipple and exit to applause. By having even the psychoanalyst veto Kepesh’s tentative efforts at self-awareness, by making his hero into a noble survivor, Roth loses control over the half-developed themes that would have saved his story from banality. It’s as if Kafka were to bludgeon us into admitting that Gregor Samsa is the most stoical cockroach we’ve met, and a wonderful sport about the whole thing.
What makes an image telling, Roth accurately observed in his interview about The Breast, is not how much meaning we can associate to it, but the freedom it gives the writer to explore his obsessions. But has he explored his obsessions in this book, or simply referred to them obliquely before importing a deus ex machina to whisk them away? In a sense The Breast is a more discouraging work than the straightforwardly vicious Our Gang. Aspiring to make a noble moral statement, Roth quarantines his best insights into the way people are imprisoned by their impulses. What would Alex Portnoy have had to say about that?
November 16, 1972