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) its readers.
The title of course comes from Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium”:
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is….
These lines are quoted by the protagonist and narrator as he describes resorting to a masturbatory fantasy to assuage his longing for the heroine of the tale, subsequent to the breakup of their relationship. The lines would apply equally well to other aging male characters in Roth’s late work, tormented by lust, fearful of impotence, disease, and death. The poem itself proposes an escape from this plight which Roth’s narrator passes over in silence. The poet is apostrophizing the “sages” of an imaginary and idealized Byzantium: “O sages standing in God’s holy fire/…gather me/Into the artifice of eternity.” Neither Roth nor his heroes (or antiheroes) have any time for, or faith in, the artifice of eternity. “Artifice” in Yeats stands for the impersonality of art, the poetics of Symbolism and Formalism, ideas that Roth has frequently attacked and satirized in his fiction, not least in his allusions to academic literary criticism. And “eternity” denotes a religious idea of transcendence that for Roth’s characters is so impossible that they don’t even bother to challenge it.
Yeats himself, though, it should be said, was not unequivocally committed to the message of “Sailing to Byzantium.” In “News for the Delphic Oracle,” for instance, he mocks the desexualized Platonic notion of heaven with a sensual description of the partying that actually goes on there:
Down the mountain walls
Intolerable music falls.
Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,
Belly, shoulder, bum,
Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
Copulate in the foam.
Crazy Jane is a kindred spirit to Micky Sabbath:
“Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,” I cried….
“A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement….”
The remarkable energy of Yeats’s late poetry is to a large extent fueled by his resentment and despair at declining sexual power. He would have agreed with an observation in The Dying Animal: “As far as I can tell, nothing, nothing, is put to rest, however old a man may be.”
The narrator and central character of The Dying Animal is David Kepesh, who performed the same dual role in two much earlier works by Roth, The Professor of Desire (1977) and The Breast (1972, revised 1980). There is a puzzle about the continuity between these books which I shall come to in a moment. The latest one begins like this:
I knew her eight years ago. She was in my class. I don’t teach full-time anymore, strictly speaking don’t teach literature at all—for years now just the one class, a big senior seminar in critical writing called Practical Criticism.
At first Kepesh’s voice seems to be addressed straight to the reader, like that of Roth’s favorite narrator and authorial surrogate, Nathan Zuckerman. But it soon becomes clear that there is an audience inside the text, a narratee, as structuralist critics call it, someone who is listening to Kepesh’s discourse and occasionally interjecting comments and questions—which are implied by Kepesh’s responses, not rendered directly, until the very last page. The identity of this listener is never revealed, though we might infer from various clues that he is a young or youngish man. In short, the story is a dramatic monologue, a form well suited to the presentation of eloquently persuasive but morally subversive individuals, like the speaker of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground or any number of Browning’s characters.
The story, then, is being told on a single occasion, which we eventually discover is late one night toward the end of January in the year 2000, in Kepesh’s apartment. He is seventy years old at this time, so he was sixty-two, and already feeling his age, when Consuela Castillo enrolled in his class, a beautiful young woman of twenty-four, the beloved and loving daughter of rich Cuban exiles. He was immediately in thrall to her beauty (“I’m very vulnerable to female beauty, as you know”) and his story is essentially about his infatuation with her, their passionate affair, which lasts about a year and a half, his three years of depression and frustration after she breaks it off, and her dramatic reentry into his life on New Year’s Eve, 1999.
But the time scheme of the book is very complex, for it operates on two planes simultaneously, which converge only on the penultimate page. There is the time of the main story, which is not unrolled in a straightforward linear fashion but cut up and rearranged according to the prompting of memories and associations in Ke-pesh’s consciousness, and frequently interrupted and suspended by digressions about his personal history, other women he has known, and his views on life and death in general. Then there is the “real time” of the narration itself, Kepesh’s long speech act that con-stitutes the text, interrupted only when he has to leave the room twice to answer the telephone. This plane is communicated in the present tense, but Kepesh sometimes uses the rhetorical device of the “historic present” on the other plane to give special immediacy to some evocation of the past, such as Consuela’s first apparition in his classroom:
She has black, black hair, glossy but ever so slightly coarse. And she’s big. She’s a big woman. The silk blouse is unbuttoned to the third button, and so you see she has powerful, beautiful breasts. You see the cleavage immediately. And you see she knows it.
Because, as well as being a professor, David Kepesh enjoys a certain modest celebrity as a cultural critic on public TV and radio, his course attracts a generous quota of nubile young women, but in the era of political correctness, and specifically since the sexual harassment hotline number was posted outside his office door by an anonymous hand in the mid-Eighties, Kepesh has learned to be cautious. He never makes a pass until the course is over, grades have been awarded, and he is no longer in loco parentis; then he invites the students to a party at his apartment, where by the end of the evening one of them is sure to share his bed, curiosity and the glamour of his status overcoming any queasiness they might feel about his sag-ging flesh. After all, “many of these girls have been having sex since they were fourteen” and it is no big deal to them.
Consuela is sexually experienced, but she is more old-fashioned than the other girls, more mature and more serious, so it takes Kepesh a little longer to get her into bed. Just as she genuinely seeks to learn from him the secret of how to really appreciate high culture, so he makes her conscious of her own beauty by the strength of his desire, he makes her into a work of art for her own enjoyment. Nevertheless the cultural initiation has to precede and legitimize the sexual, as Kepesh cynically notes. She won’t sleep with him until he has shown her his Velàzquez reproductions and let her hold his precious Kafka manuscript and taken her to the theater and played classical music to her:
All this talk! I show her Kafka, Velàzquez…why does one do this? Well, you have to do something. These are the veils of the dance. Don’t confuse it with seduction. This is not seduction. What you’re disguising is the thing that got you there, the pure lust…. You know you want it and you know you’re going to do it and nothing is going to stop you. Nothing is going to be said here that’s going to change anything…. 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.
In spite of this disclaimer, Kepesh’s account of himself often reminds one of arch seducers in earlier literature, like the callous but eloquent author of “The Seducer’s Diary” in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, who represents the “aesthetic” attitude to life as against the “ethical,” and the libertine antiheroes of eighteenth-century fiction, like Richardson’s Lovelace and Laclos’s Valmont, for whom seduction was a kind of resistance to, and critique of, the foundations of orthodox morality. Historically the word “libertine” meant a freethinker as well as a man of loose sexual conduct, and Kepesh expounds a philosophy of life that insistently identifies sexual freedom with personal freedom. “The problem is,” he says, “that emancipated manhood never has had a social spokesman or an educational system.” Ke-pesh’s heroes are the great mythical and historical philanderers, the lords of misrule, Don Juan, Casanova, Thomas Morton (who presided over the pagan orgies of Merry Mount that scandalized the Puritans of New England and excited the imagination of Hawthorne), and, in modern times, Henry Miller.
“Pleasure is our subject,” he declares, like one of Browning’s expansive monologists. “How to be serious over a lifetime about one’s modest, private pleasures.” He describes the sexual starvation of his adolescence and early adulthood in the Forties and Fifties, when “sex had to be struggled for, against the values if not the will of the girl.” All that changed in the Sixties, and Kepesh honors the memory of the promiscuous coeds in his classes who helped create the permissive society and welcomed him into it, “a generation drawing their conclusions from their cunts about the nature of experience and the delights of the world.” His wife (he married in his twenties, “marrying and having a child seemed, in ’56, the natural thing even for me to do”) threw him out when she discovered what he was up to with these self-styled Gutter Girls, but he is quite unrepentant about that, because marriage too is the enemy of pleasure: “The nature of ordinary marriage is no less suffocating to the virile heterosexual…than it is to the gay or the lesbian.” (Though now even gays and lesbians want to marry, a form of erotic suicide that Kepesh shakes his head over.)
He has a son, Kenny, now aged forty-two, who has never forgiven his father for walking out on the nuclear family, and upbraids him for his selfish, immature behavior: “Seducing defenseless students, pursuing one’s sexual interests at the expense of everyone else—that’s so very necessary, is it? No, necessity is staying in a difficult marriage and meeting the responsibilities of an adult.” Kepesh can shrug off the criticism because Kenny is in fact tired of his own marriage and having an affair with another woman. He bores Kepesh with his scruples about deserting his children, and excites his derision by planning to divorce and remarry into an even more suffocating family scene. “Oh boy, the little prison that is his current marriage he is about to trade in for a maximum-security facility. Headed once again straight for the slammer.”
There is, however, a puzzle about Kenny’s appearance in the story. Kepesh never names his wife in this book, but says that he had just “the one marriage,” so Kenny’s mother must be Helen, whom Kepesh marries in The Professor of Desire. But they don’t have a child in that story, though they talk about having one and wonder whether it would have saved their marriage. And Helen does not “throw out” Kepesh because of his philandering—she walks out on him, runs off to the Far East where she had lovers in the past, and gets into trouble from which he has to rescue her. He brings her back to America but soon afterward they divorce, after three years of marriage. Some years later, when he has been rescued from a long period of depression and loss of libido by a rather saintly woman called Claire, Helen remarries.
It is hard to know what to make of these anomalies. Roth must be aware of them, and know that many of his readers will notice them. One can see why he wanted to use the “professor of desire” as the mouthpiece for an eloquent, disturbing apologia for the libertine life. David Kepesh, it will be remembered, in that earlier novel, dreads the prison house of marriage, or any monogamous faithful relationship. He silently apostrophizes the good, comely, loving Claire, thus:
Oh, innocent beloved, you fail to understand and I can’t tell you. I can’t say it, not tonight, but within a year my passion will be dead. Already it is dying and I am afraid that there is nothing I can do to save it…. Toward the flesh upon which I have been grafted and nurtured back toward something like mastery over my life, I will be without desire.
He starts to write a lecture, imitating Kafka’s “Report to an Academy,” to introduce a course on erotic literature and to “disclose the undisclosable—the story of the professor’s desire.” It is a private exercise; he never gives the course or the lecture. One might say that The Dying Animal is the belated completion of that project.
But the discontinuity between the two novels remains a puzzle, on which that amusing hommage to Gogol and Kafka, The Breast, throws no light. Read independently, each novel is written in the code of realistic fiction, creating a consistent illusion of life, with no metafictional framebreaking. Put together they generate distracting aporias. Perhaps Roth thought that was a small price to pay for effects that were more important. The character of Kenny was created, one presumes, to offer some resistance to the libertine philosophy of life—though he is made to seem so weak and ineffectual that his criticisms don’t carry much weight. Even the unnamed interlocutor dismisses him. “He doesn’t get anything? He must. He is by no means stupid…. He is? Well, perhaps so. You’re probably right.” The real challenge to Kepesh’s libertinism (and the source of real tension in the book) is revealed by Kepesh himself as he unfolds the story of his relationship with Consuela.
That challenge is simply a heightened awareness of his own mortality. It is David Kepesh’s fate, rather than his good fortune, to possess a supremely beautiful young woman when himself on the threshold of old age, so that his enjoyment of her is always troubled by anxiety. It is not an ordinary anxiety about sexual potency, which for the time being he can rely on, but a more existential dread about his ability to continue to possess the object of his desire, and it afflicts him from the very first sexual encounter between them. “The jealousy. The uncertainty. The fear of losing her, even while on top of her. Obsessions that in all my varied experience I had never known before. With Consuela as with no one else, the siphoning off of confidence was almost instantaneous.” Consuela’s vitality and beauty make him feel his own age on his pulses. “You feel excruciatingly how old you are, but in a new way.” He can imagine all too easily how some cocksure young man is going to steal her away from him because once he was such a young man himself.
Part of Consuela’s fascination for Kepesh is that she is socially and culturally a foreigner to him: bourgeois, Latin, Catholic, devoted to her family, and intending to make a conventional marriage herself one day. The old-fashioned respectability of her social self contrasts excitingly with her limitless capacity for sensuality, just as her conservative tailored outfits cover “nearly pornographic underwear.” There is a comical moment when, on first agreeing to go to bed with this aging roué, she tells him solemnly, “I can never be your wife,” and he says, “Agreed,” but silently reflects, “Who was asking her to be my wife? Who raised the question?… I merely touch her ass and she tells me she can’t be my wife? I didn’t know such girls continued to exist.”
Their relationship has no ordinary social dimension because they belong to different social worlds. It exists only in the erotic space of his apartment, where she visits him from time to time. She does not like to be seen in public with him for fear of appearing in gossip columns, and he shrinks from confrontation with the virile young Cubans in her circle whom he imagines as her suitors. Indeed their affair is abruptly terminated by an angry Consuela when he, for that very reason, fails to turn up at her graduation party. To Consuela it signifies an arrogant indifference to her happiness, but really it is a failure of nerve. He is even jealous of her past lovers. When she tells him of the adolescent admirer whose odd and only desire was to watch her menstruating, and how she satisfied it, nothing will satisfy Kepesh but that she grant him the same privilege, and then he out-transgresses his phantom rival by licking the blood from her flesh.
It is rather shocking to be told that, while this affair was going on, Kepesh was having another sexual relationship of a more comfortable and less intense kind with Carolyn, one of the original Gutter Girls whom he met again by chance, now a successful professional woman, twice divorced, somewhat heavier around the hips but still attractive, and always up for some recreational sex when she flies in from one of her business trips. This convenient arrangement is jeopardized when Carolyn finds Consuela’s bloody tampon in Kepesh’s bathroom trash can. Without guessing exactly what it signifies, she suspects he has been cheating, and furiously upbraids him:
You have everything you want as you want it—fucking like ours outside of domesticity and outside of romance—and then you do this. There aren’t many like me, David. I have an interest in what you have an interest in…. Harmonious hedonism. I am one in a million, idiot—so how could you possibly do this?
The message is clear: Kepesh is betraying his own libertine’s philosophy by the obsessive nature of his infatuation with Consuela. He does not deny it, but lies his way coolly out of the crisis. Carolyn is appeased. “Fortunately, she did not leave me when I needed her most. She left only later, and at my request,” he chillingly comments. Kepesh remarks that his son’s conduct is governed by his fear of being called selfish; he himself obviously has no such qualms.
Roth illustrates Kepesh’s view of human sexuality with two remarkable descriptions of modern paintings. His contention that marriage, or any exclusive lasting sexual relationship, is incompatible with erotic satisfaction, because passion is of its nature ephemeral, is epitomized for him by Stanley Spencer’s celebrated double nude portrait of himself and his wife, which he saw in London’s Tate Gallery:
It is the quintessence of directness about cohabitation, about the sexes living together over time…. Spencer is seated, squatting, beside the recumbent wife. He is looking ruminatively down at her from close range through his wire-rimmed glasses…. Neither is happy. There is a heavy past clinging to the present….
At the edge of a table, in the immediate foreground of the picture, are two pieces of meat, a large leg of lamb and a single small chop. The raw meat is rendered with…the same uncharitable candour as the sagging breasts and the pendant, unaroused prick displayed only inches back from the uncooked food. You could be looking through the butcher’s window, not just at the meat but at the sexual anatomy of the married couple.
Kepesh is right about the unhappiness but, as it happens, mistaken about its cause. The woman in the picture is Spencer’s second wife, Patricia Preece, and it was painted two months before their marriage in 1937, after Spencer had split with his first wife, Hilda, whom he married in 1925. Preece cast a strange and sinister spell over Spencer. She was a lesbian who was in a long-term relationship with another woman when she met him, and remained in it. She refused to have sex with Spencer both before and after their marriage, in spite of taking his money and his property from the infatuated artist. The uncooked joint is usually interpreted as a symbol of nonconsummation. It certainly doesn’t signify the stale familiarity of marital sex. Since there is no textual hint to the contrary, we must assume that it is not only David Kepesh but also his creator who has jumped to the wrong conclusion. The mistake doesn’t really matter in terms of the fictional story, but it is a reminder that there are more ways than one of making oneself sexually miserable.
The other painting is Modigliani’s Reclining Nude (Le Grand Nu) of 1919, a postcard reproduction of which Consuela sends to Kepesh some time after the end of their affair. It took him three years to get over that separation, three years overshadowed by depression and a raging jealousy that only music and pornographic fantasizing could temporarily assuage. Even so the postcard—the picture rather than the banal message scrawled on its back—tempts him to reply,
which I believed I was being invited to do by the cylindrical stalk of a waist, the wide pelvic span, and the gently curving thighs, by that patch of flame that is the hair that marks the spot where she is forked…. A nude whose breasts, full and canting a bit to the side, might well have been modeled on [Consuela’s] own…. A golden-skinned nude inexplicably asleep over a velvety black abyss that, in my mood, I associated with the grave. One long, undulating line, she lies there awaiting you, still as death.
The painting is reproduced on the dust jacket of The Dying Animal, so readers may appreciate the exactness of Kepesh’s description, especially the brilliantly observed “velvety black abyss” under the model’s hips that reminds him of death.
Here we come to the heart of the matter. According to Kepesh’s libertine credo:
Only when you fuck…are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself…. Sex isn’t just friction and shallow fun. Sex is also the revenge on death. Don’t forget death. Don’t ever forget it. Yes, sex too is limited in its power. I know very well how limited. But tell me, what power is greater?
The anonymous narratee evidently can’t think of one, for no reply from him is implied. The question remains rhetorical. But one possible answer is of course love, the love of which Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. Love does not come to an end.
It does not come to an end because, the hope of personal immortality aside, if you give your self to another, unconditionally, in love, then death cannot absolutely take it away. Regarding the carved figures of husband and wife on a medieval tomb, the man’s hand withdrawn from his gauntlet to grasp his wife’s, Philip Larkin, most agnostic of poets, reflects:
The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Love in this large sense is agape rather than eros, but the two are not incompatible in romantic love, or even in the kind of obsessive, transgressive fixation Kepesh has on the person of Consuela. His friend George O’Hearn perceives this danger and counsels him not to respond to the postcard. Danger, because George himself is a libertine, though he has contrived to combine a life of sexual adventure with marriage, thanks to a tolerant or perhaps merely indifferent wife. He acts as Kepesh’s worldly confessor, listens to the latter’s account of his affair with Consuela, and urges him not to renew it. Otherwise, he says, it will destroy him. “‘Look,’ he told me, ‘see it as a critic, see it from a professional point of view. You violated the law of aesthetic distance. You sentimentalized the aesthetic experience with this girl.'” George tells him he crossed a dangerous threshold when he licked her blood: “‘I’m not against it because it’s disgusting. I’m against it because it’s falling in love…. People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole?… I think otherwise. I think you’re whole before you begin. And the love fractures you.'” Kepesh takes his advice, and does not respond to the postcard.
Some years later, a few months in fact before the time of the story’s telling, George has a stroke and dies. Kepesh watches his last hours of life. Diapered against incontinence, unable to speak, George draws on unsuspected reserves of energy to signify his desire to embrace the people gathered round the hospital bed. He kisses his children on the mouth, and likewise the astonished Kepesh. He kisses his wife, and then begins to fumble with her clothing in a grotesque, yet to Kepesh, oddly touching attempt to undress her. “Yes, that was something, wasn’t it?” his wife comments drily to Kepesh afterward. “I wonder who it is he thought I was.” Whether George’s deathbed tableau is sublime or ridiculous, a vindication of or a judgment on his life, remains ambiguous.
And so the story moves toward its climax (and at this point I would recommend any readers who have not yet read The Dying Animal to put this review aside until they have done so). On New Year’s Eve, 1999, the last day of the millennium, Kepesh receives a phone message from an evidently distressed Consuela, to say that she wants to tell him something face to face. After some hesitation, fearing the disruption of his hard-won peace of mind, he agrees. She shows up at his apartment, as beautiful as ever, but ominously wearing a fez. She quickly reveals that she has breast cancer and has been having chemotherapy to shrink the tumors. Now she faces surgery for partial removal of one of the breasts that Kepesh once told her were the most beautiful he had ever seen. She wants him to say “goodbye” to them: to touch them, and to photograph them, but not to take this intimacy any further. Kepesh realizes he wouldn’t be able to anyway, once he has felt the lumps under her armpit. “At that moment I knew hers was no longer a sexual life. What was at stake was something else.”
Consuela’s life-threatening illness also threatens Kepesh’s libertine philosophy. To succumb to inevitable death after a lifetime of licentious pleasure, like George O’Hearn, is one thing. To do so when one is only thirty-two is quite another. In fact Consuela has been told she has a 60 percent chance of cure, but her intuition tells her otherwise. “Time for the young is always made up of what is past, but for Consuela time is now how much future she has left, and she doesn’t believe there is any.” She is experiencing her own mortality prematurely, out of the natural order of things. Kepesh’s maxim, “Sex is the revenge on death,” would be of no use or consolation to her. All he can do is hold her and comfort her, as they distract themselves by watching the television coverage of the millennium celebrations sweeping round the globe, their vacuous cheeriness and vulgar spectacle suiting the medium perfectly: “TV doing what it does best: the triumph of trivialization over tragedy.”
That happened three weeks ago, he tells his companion. She left his apartment at one-thirty in the morning of New Year’s Day, saying she would get back in touch after her surgery. He has been waiting for her call ever since, wondering uneasily what kind of claim on him she might have if she survives the operation. He fears that she might decide to try out sex “first with someone familiar and someone old.” He knows from a previous experience that he couldn’t make it with a woman mutilated by even a partial mastectomy. He associates the lump of raw meat in the Stanley Spencer painting with Consuela’s threatened breast and the failure of sex. He recalls the pathos of her ravaged head when she took off her fez, covered by a thin, meaningless fuzz that was worse than perfect baldness. He kissed the head again and again:
What else was there for me to do?… She’s thirty-two, and she thinks she’s now exiled from everything, experiencing each experience for the very last time. Only what if she isn’t? What—
There! The phone! That could be—! At what time? It’s two AM. Excuse me!
The time of the story has finally caught up with the time of its telling. He returns to report that the call was indeed from Consuela. She is having a panic attack. Her surgery is due in two weeks’ time and the doctors now tell her they have to remove the whole breast. She wants him to go to her, to sleep in her bed, to look after her, feed her. He has to go immediately. The story ends in a staccato exchange of dialogue, the narratee’s words quoted in direct speech for the first time:
But I must. Someone has to be with her.
“She’ll find someone.”
She’s in terror. I’m going.
“Think about it. Think. Because if you go, you’re finished.”
The narratee is probably right that if Kepesh answers Consuela’s call for help he is going to be sucked into a maelstrom of appalling emotional stress, but of course he won’t be “finished” in the sense that Consuela will be finished if she dies. But what if she recovers and lives on, wounded, traumatized, burdening Kepesh with her pain and fear and sexual insecurity? Possibly that would “finish” him psychologically. Kepesh himself has already feared as much. The narratee, speaking like a reincarnation of George O’Hearn, urges him not to take the risk. Should he go or not?
If Corinthians 1:13 is invoked, there is no question—of course he must go. He must give a helping hand to Consuela in her hour of need, without weighing up the possible long-term consequences. And that gesture of kissing her unappealing, fuzz-covered head suggests that he is capable of such a selfless act. But by ending the story where he does, Roth leaves the reader free to suppose that Kepesh doesn’t go, perhaps shouldn’t go. Certainly, if he goes, he will be repudiating everything he has asserted in the previous one hundred and fifty pages. What the author himself thinks is inscrutable, because of the chosen form. Like many works of modern literature, The Dying Animal ends on a note of radical ambiguity and indeterminacy. What is rather unusual about it is the way it challenges the reader at every point to define and defend his own ethical position toward the issues raised by the story. It is a small, disturbing masterpiece.
July 5, 2001