Everyman by Philip Roth

December 10, 2009

The unamed protagonist of Everyman is afraid of oblivion. He starts life frailer than his robust and outgoing brother and, consequently, begins worrying about the end well before most. As a child, he is admitted to the hospital for hernia surgery. The boy with whom he shares a room disappears one night and the protagonist, Everyman, assumes he died. Roth manages the scene with both knowing humor and the urgency of a naive child. Of course, maybe the roommate did die.

Everyman recovers from the surgery and has a pretty healthy life until middle age. But even before ailments begin to disrupt Everyman’s normally energetic lifestyle, he worries about death. While still in his thirties, Everyman enjoys a vacation at a beach house with a lover. Thoughts of non-existence intrude on the idyll:

The only unsettling moments were at night, when they walked along the beach together. The dark sea rolling in with its momentous thud and the sky lavish with stars made Phoebe rapturous. But frightened him. The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die. And the thunder of the sea only yards away and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, underfurnished house.

He decides to put off worrying about oblivion until old age and does his best to follow this plan. Still, he returns again and again to the idea of oblivion. When he develops health problems sooner than his older brother, their once close relationship strained due to Everyman’s jealousy of his brother’s health.

Roth writes beautifully of a man obsessively concerned with his own end. The protagonist, is less beautiful. Everyman is extremely narcissistic. He has two chief concerns in life: sex and death.

His objective with regard to sex is that he get as much of it as possible. He cheats on every significant other in his life and, at 70-something, bemoans the discovery that the 20-something he had attempted to seduce was only humoring him. He regrets, not that he should have done more with the time he had, but that he does not have more time to engage in the same rather pathetic pursuits in which he has always engaged.

As for death, he is terribly concerned with his own. The deaths of others disconcert him primarily because it brings into clearer focus his own eventual fate. Oblivion is, for him, a great calamity.

It is unfortunate, I can agree, but Everyman thinks too much of himself. A person’s death is really only a calamity to those who love him, who are loved by him. A character who seems to have lived a more laudable life illustrates this point in a particularly touching scene. She is a student in the art class Everyman teaches, a class populated mostly by the elderly. She, his star pupil, has back pains which occasionally force her to lie down in his room. He finds her there, crying.

“Would a heating pad help?” he asked.

“You know what would help?” she said. “The sound of that voice that’s disappeared, the sound of the exceptional man I loved. I think I could take all this, if he were here. But I can’t without him. I never saw him weaken, once in his life. Then came the cancer and it crushed him.”

I suspect Everyman is more taken by the crushing force of cancer than the exceptional love of this woman for another. Cancer, heart disease, a bulldozer, something will crush us all. But not all of us will love like the art student, not all of us will be loved as was her “exceptional man.” Hers, theirs, is the calamity.

Everyman’s preoccupation with death is as base as his drive for orgasms. He has all but destroyed every potentially meaningful relationship he has ever had. He is able to reach out to some other battered old men late in life, but that is only to console himself, to look inward again, at the tragedy he is facing. They are not people he will miss. They are not people who will miss him. They are simply examples of what awaits and that is what Everyman finds calamitous. That he, Everyman, must be swallowed by oblivion.

The writing is beautiful, but I am underwhelmed by Roth’s focus on death, deterioration, and sex. These are neither lofty nor abstruse concepts. We live, we die. Because all life has evolved to procreate, we have the desire to achieve orgasm. This latter fact is more tragic than oblivion. Our short time is spent preoccupied too much with the concerns of dogs within sniffing distance of a bitch in heat, not enough with more meritorious goals. If only our need to love, connect with, and respect our fellow travelers was as instinctively compelling, that would be something.

The true calamity, then, is that Everyman is far too much like every man.

(This is a review of the audio version, read by George Guidall.)

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.