The Dying Animal by Philip Roth

December 1, 2009

I occasionally listen to audiobooks while driving. The experience of listening to a book is quite different from reading it. There are the mechanics of listening to words rather than seeing them, the relative difficulty of flipping back a few pages to remind onesself of an important name or thought. A more essential difference, however, is that, with an audiobook, someone else is interpreting the prose for you. How long to pause, what words to emphasize in a sentence, the tone and tempo, these are all major decisions and they have been made for you when you listen.

Books written in the first person are, at once, most convincing and, for that reason, most suscetible to the audiobook narrator’s interpretive decisions. For me, David Kepesh now will have Tom Stechschulte’s voice always. This is a good thing for The Dying Animal, and Roth’s other two novels featuring Kepesh, as Stechschulte did an admirable job.

I have not previously read any Roth novels. I have no excuse for this. I do have an explanation. At some point prior to seriously consider picking up one of his books, Roth became to me an autobiographical writer whose literary alter ego was something of a cad. As time went on, Zuckerman, and hence Roth, became less savory in my mind, so I avoided Roth. Yes, art is independent of the artist and all, but I had it in mind that Roth intertwined them and I really had no interest in separating the strands again.

Yes, I was being hypocritical. Something I am not above. For instance, I am a non-practicing vegetarian. My conscience pricks me every time I eat a burger, but meat tastes so good. I keep planning to one day at least go on a fish and eggs only diet. The day never comes. And now I have fallen in love with Coetzee’s lightly fictionalized autobiographical series: Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime.

As one of the greatest writers of his generation, Roth deserves some attention. I aim to be fair, so here it is.

The Dying Animal has nothing to do with vegetarianism, either the theory or practice. The animal here is human. David Kepesh is an aging gentleman whose primary goal in life is sexual conquest. He is facilitated in his efforts by being both a professor and a minor local TV celebrity as cultural critic. The steady crop of young, naive, and easily impressed women keeps Kepesh satiated. Even as he ages, he is not a tit remorseful.

Each woman he beds is delicious to him, but he wants more. No, he does not want a meaningful relationship. There is little meaning for Kepesh beyond the conjugal act. Even his scholarly pursuits primarily serve to provide him material with which to woo and flatter. I cannot recall the exact quote, but Kepesh is of the opinion that no one can escape the pull of sex, no one can better it, diminish it, avoid it, master it, or, ultimately, survive it.

There are asides into death and aging, sometimes discussing things other than the decline of one’s potency. Kepesh has opinions on relationships outside the bed, particularly that with his son. It all serves mainly to provide a break from some of the graphic sex scenes and narcissism of Kepesh. Kepesh is isolated from nearly everyone besides his lovers. And typically they exit quickly too.

Conseula Castillo, the granddaughter of Cuban emigres, walks into his life and changes little. She is like every (former) student with whom he has had a sexual relationship, only better.

She comes to the first class with a jacket buttoned over her blouse. Yet some five minutes into the session she has taken it off. When I glance her way again, I see that she’s put it back on. So, you understand that she’s aware of her power, but that she isn’t sure yet how to use it, what to do with it, how much she even wants it. That body is still new to her. She’s still trying it out, thinking it through, a bit like a kid walking the streets with a loaded gun and deciding whether he’s packing it to protect himself or to begin a life of crime.

Kepesh is a predator, Consuela catnip. Kepesh pursues. Even as he edges nearer the grave and dreads it, Consuela provides a reprieve of sorts. It only lasts until Kepesh realizes he has been bettered. Consuela is too beautiful for him, too perfect. Not ordinarily a man to be jealous, he is. Past lovers and future lovers all crowd Kepesh, making him feel more desperate than perhaps he ever has.

There is enough here to surprise both Kepesh and the reader. Kepesh, true to his characer, maintains concurrent relationships while bedding Consuela and keeps his and Consuela’s relationship within strictly sexual bounds, so as not to lose control of himself or the situation. Inevitably, Consuela moves on.

She is not gone permanently, however. When she comes back into Kepesh’s life, we find that there is more to the man than he has led us to believe, than he believed himself. As Kepesh’s relationship with Consuela deepens and complicates, the non-reptilian portions of Kepesh’s brain perk up like nipples on a cold morning. He is, after all, not only a sexual organ. Kepesh and Consuela find more to ponder than their next orgasm, though the ties that bind were woven in bed.

Roth, as shown by the only quote I have provided, writes beautifully and, thus, I will read him again. The plot here is thin and the characters (Kepesh in particular) do nothing to dispel my preconceived biases against Roth. The Dying Animal is more meditation than novel and slows perilously close stall speed at a couple spots. Still, his sentences prove his reputation is well-earned. His writing is so good, I will seek out more of his work. I will try to find novels in which he breasts more complex aspects of the human experience.

Number9Dream by David Mitchell

September 14, 2009

Ghostwritten, which I really enjoyed, is David Mitchell’s first novel. I had decided previously to read his oeuvre in order which brought me to this, his second novel. Number9Dream is a more significant achievement than Ghostwritten and I also enjoyed it more. I did not get the same rush from reading a new and original author because Mitchell was no longer new to me, but I liked this story better.

Number9Dream2At the beginning of this book, you may feel a little disoriented or pushed off balance by the fantasizing of the main character, Eiji Mayake, a nineteen-year-old Japanese boy. Do not worry, you are in the skilled hands of David Mitchell. He will soon slow the world’s spinning so you can orient yourself to this unique and beautiful world he has created. Whether you like his writing, the man knows what he is doing.

Mitchell keeps ideas and plot streaming at the reader, so that, even when I felt I had not gotten a foothold yet or thought I had become lost, I wanted to keep going. The basic plot driver is pretty simple and serves as an early and effective hook. Eiji Mayake has come to Tokyo to find his father whom he has never met.

The book is divided into nine sections (dreams). In the first, Eiji is sitting in a cafe imagining different scenarios in which he infiltrates PanOpticon, a large office building, to retrieve a file containing his father’s identity. The fantasies are quite boyish, often involving violent confrontations that involve Eiji heroically overpowering grown men or, alternatively, blasting his way to freedom using sci-fi weapons. In this first section, Eiji is a nineteen-year-old adolescent, not yet a man.

By the end of the novel, Eiji has matured as a result of adventures, misadventures, and relationships he has along the way. In that sense, the novel is a coming-of-age story about an orphaned Japanese boy. There is much more to it than that, however.

For instance, PanOpticon figures prominently in this first section. Mitchell has something to say about large, Number9Dreamimpersonal organizations (the ideas of Foucault, for instance, are invoked by PanOpticon) that so often control details of our lives. PanOpticon is a watcher, but it is also watched by Eiji. This theme of watchers, being watched, and power relations is repeated throughout the novel.

At heart, though, the novel is about Eiji’s search for identity, family, and meaning. He has never met his father and his mother abandoned him when he was three. In the second section, “Lost Property”, we learn how Eiji’s only other immediate family member, his twin sister Anju, died at the age of eleven. Eiji and Anju were shuttled from relative to relative throughout his childhood, more so after Anju’s death, and, therefore, Eiji has little sense of family or belonging.

He invests with fantastic hopes the prospect of meeting his father. He knows his father is a powerful and wealthy man. He imagines meeting his father will solve many of his problems, will make him whole again. Of course, the reality is that Eiji’s father cheated on his wife with Eiji’s mother. When Eiji’s mother, the father’s mistress, became pregnant, Eiji’s father abandoned her. The reality is that any reunion is unlikely to be as neatly fulfilling as Eiji imagines.

Also in the first section, Eiji sees a girl with a perfect neck. Here too, his youthful fantasies outstrip reality. Eiji manages to do little other than watch her. But this is a coming-of-age story. As the novel progresses Eiji begins to piece together a reality and become proactive rather than following his usual course which is to escape into wishful fantasies.

David Mitchell manages this transition very well. By the end of the novel, Eiji has matured in a convincing manner to see the world more as it is. Of course, this reality includes plenty of coincidences, an angry stepmother, a mysterious Admiral Raizo who has some connection to Eiji’s father, a girl, a computer hacker who goes where he should not, the yakuza (Japanese mafia), high-class and secretive brothels, a computer supervirus, and plenty of opportunities for Eiji to die. So, while the transition is perhaps the underlying backbone of the novel, the narrative is fleshed out with exciting subplots, red herrings, and action.

Aside from Eiji’s fantasies, Mitchell also expertly manages to weave into the novel several other texts. Eiji receives several letters from his emotionally struggling mother, Eiji reads short stories on the writing desk of another character, and he obtains a journal of a relative who fought in World War II for the Japanese. David Mitchell gives each of these narratives within the narrative its own, authentic voice.

For an example of Eiji’s own voice, there is this passage, early in the novel, in which Eiji is walking down the street after twin humiliations:

Postdownpour sweat and grim regrunge Tokyo. The puddles steam dry. A street musician sings so off-key that passersby have a civic duty to smash his guitar on his head and relieve him of his coins. I head back toward the Shinjuku subway because I have nowehere else to go in this mortgaged city except my capsule. The crowds are beaten senseless by the heat and march out of step. I am beaten senseless by boiling annoyance and tired guilt. I feel I have broken a promise. I cannot understand this. My father’s doorbell is lost at an unknonw grid reference in the city street guide. Could be around this corner, could be halfway to Yokohama…

What Mitchell does extremely well is to weave together multiple genres, really, into a single coherent narrative. Eiji’s fantasies are usually action-packed sci-fi tales, his mother writes grounded, emotional letters, the short stories are fables which anthropomorphize animals, the journal is historical fiction, and the narrative reality swings from romance to gangster noir. The mastery is not simply to include bits of so many genres, but to use this distinct voices in the service of a deeper meaning. Each element pushes forward Mitchell’s exploration of meaning and individual’s need to create narrative to explain the world.

In lesser hands, these elements could fly apart. Mitchell is too talented to allow any such thing. What we get then is a novel that often seems on the verge of spinning out-of-control or into incoherence, but is pulled deftly back into orbit around engaging philosphical questions. The novel seems to improve as it goes forward until, by the end, it is quite a good novel indeed.

Too expose much more of the plot would reveal too many delightful surprises. Be assured that there is both depth and humor to go with the action:

Here comes my killer, checking his gun. What was it all for? Anju was overwhelmed by the ocean. I am just underwhelmed. I sneeze again. Sneezing, now! I want to ask my nose, Why bother? The breeze is cool off the drained sea.

Another important element to Mitchell’s fiction are his references to pop culture, literature, and the like. He references both his own prior novel Ghostwritten (with a returning character who has a bit part here) and his subsequent novel (the phrase “cloud atlas” is used by Mitchell in number9dream). He also weaves in references to John Lennon, a hero of Eiji’s, and the number nine appears throughout (John Lennon’s song #9dream is an obvious reference point and Lennon himself was enthralled with the number nine).

Ultimately, I think this is a book about meaning and the way meaning shifts. Or maybe ideas of family and how those ideas shift. Or both. Eiji initially defines his life as a search for his father, as if meeting his father will make the pieces of his life fit neatly into place, give him meaning. The reality, of course, is that life is messy. As soon as a chosen hill is crested, there are others from which we must choose unless we simply stagnate. As Eiji learns, life does not have one fixed meaning for everyone or even for an individual. Meaning can be reduced to something as banal as locating someone who shares your DNA or it can be something deeper and more fulfilling.

Like meaning, family is not a fixed concept, but a fluid one. We build our families as we mature. Eiji builds relationships throughout the novel that are more important, more genuine, and more satisfying than forced meetings between blood relatives. Eiji discovers this, if not so explicitly, and is much improved for the discovery.

Number9Dream is a very intelligent novel. While I am not entirely enthralled by Mitchell, I am looking forward to Cloud Atlas. Mitchell is a unique voice in literature with something to say about the world. I am quite pleased I decided to enjoy his novels in the order they were published. I think I will get more out of Cloud Atlas having read these two, than I otherwise would have. This is particularly so because of Mitchell’s fondness for referencing his own work. It will likely be a few months before I read Cloud Atlas, but I look forward to it.