D cups to die for

The Dying Animal

Philip Roth <em>Jonathan Cape, 156pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0224061933

No one has ever accused Philip Roth of pandering to the female reader. His heroes and alter egos make no apologies for the male gaze. They are frank, shamelessly frank, about their preferences and proclivities. These are eclectic: they have lots of time for women who are cerebral and gutsy and witty and accomplished. But the ones they rate the highest are never just cerebral, gutsy, witty and accomplished. They are also young and beautiful, with size D cups.

That is why you don't see many women packing Roth into their beach bags. Last summer, however, there were hints of a sea change, thanks to his brilliant trilogy - American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. Even small-cup women confessed to be in awe of his wit, his vision, his masterful way with words. Even those au fait with the gruesome revelations in Claire Bloom's autobiography were beginning to refer to Roth as a mensch, a genius, a national treasure. But now he has gone and grossed them out again with The Dying Animal.

It is being marketed as a short novel, but really it's a long joke. Roth takes 156 pages to set it up, then turns it around with a ten-word punchline. The book's title comes from Yeats: "Consume my heart away; sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal." The cover features a Mondrian nude who could easily be a size F or G. The narrator is David Keppesh, who made his first appearance in 1972, when he woke up one morning to discover that he was the eponymous hero in a novel called The Breast. He turned the metaphor into a religion in The Professor of Desire, which came out in 1977. Even then, it was an uphill battle for poor Keppesh, because all the really serious sexual revolutionaries were 20 years younger. People his age tended to play safe and on the margins. But Keppesh was not one for accommodation. So he left his wife and son and went to town. His only true ally was a poet named George, who had taken the extraordinarily brave and innovative step of parking his wife and kids in the suburbs so that they had no way of checking up on him. It was not just fun that these men were after. Their lust had a theoretical base. Their mission was to "sidestep the worst" of the revolution and to seize the idea: to seek pure pleasure, with the emphasis on the word "pure", "because only when you fuck is everything that you dislike in life and everything by which you are defeated in life purely, if momentarily, revenged. Only then are you most cleanly alive and most cleanly yourself. It's not the sex that's the corruption - it's the rest."

"Can I master the discipline of freedom as opposed to the recklessness of freedom? How does one turn freedom into a system?" Keppesh asks. The short answer is: with relative ease, if you are fortysomething and the year is seventysomething. But now it is the year 2000, and it is Keppesh who is seventysomething. He is fine "down there", by the way. No mention of the V-word. But the sexual harassment police are on his case at the college where he teaches, so these days he doesn't dare seduce his students until their marks are in the office. Plus George is dead and, for eight years now, he has been pining away for a young Cuban beauty with the best D cups he's ever seen.

As Keppesh admits to the unnamed confidante to whom this monologue is addressed, he cannot fully understand what he sees in this woman, because Consuela has no brain, and is no match for the wild women who failed to get their claws into him during the earlier stages of the revolution. She is so matter-of-fact about her right to pleasure that you'd think it was guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. She's athletic, but soulless in bed. "When she was first sucking me," he recalls, "she would move her head with a relentless rat-a-tat-tat rapidity - it was impossible not to come much sooner than I wanted to, but then, the instant I began coming, she abruptly stopped and received it like an open drain. I could have been coming into a wastepaper basket." So he tries to bring out the animal in her. And, in just a few quick lessons, he succeeds. But the joke's on him, because it is the animal in her that makes him feel his age. It will be other, younger men who enjoy the fruits of his tutorial. The young man he sees most clearly in his jealous fantasies is himself at 25.

To his horror, he finds himself thinking of her - and him - incessantly. The killing fantasies continue unabated after the end of the affair. He takes up the piano, hoping to pound her and him and it out of his brain. But then, on millennium eve, when he is sitting at home minding his own business, the phone rings and . . .

She is not the only one to try to break down his defences. There are other invaders, all of whom answer to a god he cannot fathom. There is the witty, gutsy, fortysomething lover who was also a lover back in the Sixties, and whose body now takes up "more space than it used to". This he understands: "Two divorces, no children, a demanding, high-paying job requiring lots of overseas travel - all that adds up to another 35 pounds." He is man enough to accept her back into his bed. So why does she mind that she is not the only one?

The biggest mystery is Keppesh's son, who hates his father's guts. He married early and had four children, perhaps to prove he was a different sort of animal from his father. At 42, he becomes an adulterer. He refuses to leave his marriage, but is not willing to keep the affair a secret. Instead, he flies down to Florida for the day with the girlfriend, to meet and be blessed by her extended family. His father is perplexed. Why is this son of his so keen to trade in "the little prison that is his current marriage" for a "maximum security facility"?

The son won't say. Instead, he writes to his father to tell him how ridiculous he looks: "The long pageboy of important hair, the turkey wattle half hidden behind the fancy foulard - when will you begin to rouge your cheeks, Herr Aschenbach?" There is no room for forgiveness, no moment at which Keppesh and his son come to terms with each other. Both remain locked inside the theories that made them. They do not dare ask themselves if they are defending themselves with lies, because without these lies they are nothing. They signify nothing, but that is sort of the point. To pass moral judgement on the characters, or to complain (as a number of US critics did) that this book is not "big enough", is to misread Roth's intentions. It is not wimmin or puritanism or politically correct feminism he is railing against: it is death. And death is winning. But not quite yet. This is a vicious, furious book, unapologetically not of this age and - even by the standards of the other age - in execrable taste. But it is also horribly funny and unflinchingly honest - and just the right size for what it is.

Maureen Freely is a lecturer and novelist

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The slow death of Tory England