About forty pages into The Dying Animal, I was disappointed. I took note of the fact that, although the protagonist had just given someone an angel kiss,
I was in danger of becoming bored. I didn’t feel like I was reading
Philip Roth. I wasn’t laughing as much as usual. I didn’t see much
complexity. The political discussions were comparatively uninteresting.
The word “Jew” hadn’t been used once. Normally, I dislike authors who
can’t get passed their race/gender/what have you, but Roth is
different, because… well, because he’s a good writer. Ethnicity isn’t
a substitute for substance with him; he brings substance to the
I checked the flap to see why this book was supposed to be good. Because it’s about “the power of eros and the fact of death.” We fuck and die. Dying Animal. I get it. I knew that. So?
It was only a few pages more before the book really took off for me.
The fuck and die angle remained, but was brought to life as the
protagonist, David Kepesh, culture critic, minor celeb and professor,
came to life. Part of the problem may have been that I skipped the
earlier Kepesh novels and didn’t have much prior knowledge of the
character. I only read this one because it was short and the only Roth
book at my local library. In any case, once Kepesh fleshes out as a
character, as he fleshes out his own philosophy of life, the novel
stands on its own.
I’m probably the 10,000th person to say so, but The Dying Animal brings to mind Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Ilych is the picture of complacency, fixated on what kind of drapes
he’ll choose. He gets a terminal illness, faces the emptiness of his
life, reaches back to his childhood for strands of authenticity and
dies. Kepesh is sort of like Ivan Ilych if he were smarter and had read
The Death of Ivan Ilych. Kepesh watches his friends cruelly erode and die and knows that he too will be erased. He says things like,
If you’re lucky it can work out that way, people ageing and
dying in order, so at the funeral you can ease your pain by thinking that the person had a long life. It hardly makes the extinction less monstrous, that thought, but it’s a trick we use to keep the metronomic illusion in tact and the torture at bay.
Kepesh’s approach to life comes full circle to Ilych’s
experience. He’s not particularly into drapes, but he does go after as
much aesthetic delight as possible, especially sex with beautiful
students. He knows that we get only get a taste of life. He believes in
tasting as much of the good stuff as possible and refining one’s tastes
so as to be able to choose the very best stuff and to get the most out
of each mouthful. This is only possible through maintaining personal
freedom. Kepesh tries to avoid dependence on other people and, although
he makes himself available to friends and family, will not allow the
needs of others to become constraints.
The Dying Animal is a strong novel, not because it points out that we fuck and die, but because it presents a touching and real portrait of how one man handles fucking and death. We get to know Kepesh, the consequences of his philosophy and the horrors that necessitate and challenge it.
Along the way, we’re treated to Roth’s efficient prose. A
couple of lines may become quotations, like “most bring to bed with
them the worst of their biography.” In the last half of the book,
Kepesh begins to make politically interesting statements like,
“pro-choice I was, but that didn’t mean pro her choice for him.”
(Preach it brother!) By the end, Roth felt like Roth again, although
with a different approach. I went back to the library to order a copy
of The Human Stain.