Synopses & Reviews
No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, youre not superior to sex.
With these words our most unflaggingly energetic and morally serious novelist launches perhaps his fiercest book. The speaker is David Kepesh, white-haired and over sixty, an eminent cultural critic and star lecturer at a New York college as well as an articulate propagandist of the sexual revolution. For years he has made a practice of sleeping with adventurous female students while maintaining an aesthete's critical distance. But now that distance has been annihilated.
The agency of Kepesh's undoing is Consuela Castillo, the decorous and humblingly beautiful 24-year-old daughter of Cuban exiles. When he becomes involved with her, Kepesh finds himself dragged helplessly, bitterly, furiously into the quagmire of sexual jealousy and loss. In chronicling this descent, Philip Roth performs a breathtaking set of variations on the themes of eros and mortality, license and repression, selfishness and sacrifice. The Dying Animal is a burning coal of a book, filled with intellectual heat and not a little danger.
"The novella is as brilliantly written, line by line, as any book in Roth's oeuvre, and it's bound to be talked about with gusto." Publishers Weekly
"[A] taut and ferocious tale....Kepesh may be selfish and manipulative, but Roth has imbued him with profound integrity and blazing intelligence....Virtuosic, riling, and fearless, Roth is the bard of the modern American psyche." Booklist
"The recent creative surge that has produced some of Roth's best fiction continues with this intense short novel..." Kirkus Reviews
"Sorrowful, sexy, elegant....[A] distinguished addition to Roth's increasingly remarkable literary career." San Francisco Chronicle
"Roth is a mesmerizing writer, whose very language has the vitality of a living organism." The Los Angeles Times
"This little book delivers a chill that you wouldn't get from a Zuckerman novel." Newsday
"[A] disturbing masterpiece." The New York Review of Books
Combining the moral seriousness of his American Trilogy with the furious energy he brought to Sabbath's Theater and The Professor of Desire, Roth performs a virtuosic set of variations on the theme of sexuality and its discontents.
About the Author
In the 1990s Philip Roth won America's four major literary awards in succession: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony (1991), the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock (1993), the National Book Award for Sabbath's Theater (1995), and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for American Pastoral (1997). He won the Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I Married a Communist (1998); in the same year he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House. Previously he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Counterlife (1986) and the National Book Award for his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959). In 2000 he published The Human Stain, concluding a trilogy that depicts the ideological ethos of postwar America. For The Human Stain, Roth received his second PEN/Faulkner Award as well as Britain's W. H. Smith Award for the Best Book of the Year. In 2001 he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in fiction, given every six years "for the entire work of the recipient."
Reading Group Guide
1. To begin, answer these questions using the book as your guide. Read aloud the relevant sentences or passages.
a. Why is Janie Wyatt Kepeshs hero [pp. 48-58]?
b. Why is Caroline Lyons Kepeshs lover [pp. 46-48, 69-76]?
c. Why does Miranda stay behind after the party [pp. 7-9]?
d. Why does Elena Hrabovsky come to Kepesh when shes unhappy about her life with men? What is Kepeshs response to her unhappiness [pp. 107-110]?
e. Why is Kepeshs description of Consuelas vulva so detailed [p. 103]? Why the aquatic and artistic references? What human emotion informs this passage?
2. What are the sources of pleasure in Consuela Castillo and David Kepeshs relationship? What do they offer each other? What allows each to “master” the other? Describe Consuela.
3. Why does Kepesh become obsessively jealous? Do his pleasure and jealousy derive from the same source?
4. What is the place of music in Kepeshs life? What about books?
5. After Consuela leaves Kepesh, his friend the poet George OHearn warns him to stay away from her: “This is the pathology in its purest form. . . . You violated the law of aesthetic distance. You sentimentalized the aesthetic experience with this girl—you personalized it, you sentimentalized it, and you lost the sense of separation essential to your enjoyment” [p. 99]. Why would George suggest, and Kepesh be receptive to, the notion that sexual relations be governed by aesthetic laws?
6. Kepesh agrees with George that “attachment is ruinous,” finds those who voluntarily give up their freedom “ridiculous,” and feels that “marriage at its best is a sure-fire stimulant to the thrills of licentious subterfuge” [p. 111]. His son Kenny, who struggles to make his own marriage work, accuses him of gross irresponsibility, of confusing sexual freedom with vulgar self-interest, of behaving like a lecherous fool. Does the novel resolve these conflicting points of view? Does it endorse one position over the other or simply bring them into clarifying opposition?
7. Why doesnt Kepeshs son Kenny listen to his father? Is Kepesh not giving Kenny good advice?
8. In what ways is The Dying Animal about the intersection of Americas cultural history with David Kepeshs personal history? How does he interpret the sixties? How does the sexual revolution “revolutionize” his life? What does it cost him?
9. Kepesh argues that family life is childish and that “emancipated manhood never has had a social spokesman or an educational system. It has no social status because people dont want it to have social status” [p. 112]. Why do people refuse to give “emancipated manhood” social status? Do they give “emancipated womanhood” social status? If Kepesh were gay or female, would that alter your response to the book?
10. Why does Roth include the extended section on George OHearns death? What is the motive behind OHearns final desperate attempt to undress his wife [pp. 121-3]?
11. How does Consuelas illness abolish the age difference between her and Kepesh?
12. Even though its last word is “finished,” and even though its final pages are filled with anxiety about death, The Dying Animal is open-ended. Why does Roth choose to close the book in this way? What is likely to happen to David Kepesh? Will he ignore his listeners warning and go to Consuela? If so, will it be the end of him?
“A disturbing masterpiece.” —The New York Review of Books
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Philip Roths The Dying Animal. We hope they will deepen and broaden your understanding of one of Roths most brilliant characters, David Kepesh, and the story he tells in this complex and powerful novel.