The Breast by Philip Roth (1972) Vintage (1994) 89 pp
When I first started reading Roth, there was one of his early titles that sounded, well . . . interesting: The Breast. I also knew the basic premise; it’s one people like to tell you for the reaction. One day a middle-aged man finds that he has turned into a 150-pound female breast. In Roth’s hands it is intriguing — it is, in fact, Rothian — but is it okay for me to consider this a serious reading project?
I have good news. The book takes only a little over an hour to read, so you’ll know the answer to that question soon enough. More good news now that I’ve read it: it is obviously a very strange book — but it is strange in a good way.
Probably the only reason I read this book now rather than later is because it is the first of Roth’s David Kepesh books (the others being The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal). Since I finished Roth’s Zuckerman books last year, I thought it would be nice to get to know another of his famous serial characters. And before we meet David Kepesh in the latter two books (where I don’ t believe he is still a breast) we must first see him transformed into a breast, this is where I found myself.
It began oddly. But could it have begun otherwise, however it began? It has been said, of course, that everything under the sun begins oddly and ends oddly, and is odd. A perfect rose is “odd,” so is an imperfect rose, so is the rose of ordinary rosy good looks growing in your neighbor’s garden. I know about the perspective from which all that exists appears awesome and mysterious. Reflect upon eternity, consider, if you are up to it, oblivion, and everything becomes a wonder. Still, I would submit to you, in all humility, that some things are more wondrous than others, and that I am one such thing.
I would agree that Kepesh’s transformation into a breast began oddly, but “it” is what is truly odd. The result of this transformation would seem to render any discussion of the initial redness around the penis as neither here nor there. Alas, that is where Kepesh begins his book, and it’s not the most intriguing aspect of the book. I much prefer Kafka’s approach when he simply begins the story with the fabulous metamorphosis already having taken place. In this case, though, the fact that the transformation begins in Kepesh’s genitals seems to be relevant, particularly as an indication of why Kepesh might have transformed.
The Breast is about the banal. Kepesh is a man with a sexual appetite that doesn’t stope when he becomes a breast. He’s still flesh — only now he can never fully reach climax, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Such scenes are not interesting, not to me, anyway. The novella becomes exceedingly interesting, however, when Kepesh tries to intellectualize himself around his problem:
When I came around, I at last realized that I had gone mad. I was not dreaming. I was crazy. There was to be no magical awakening, no getting up out of bed, brushing my teeth, and going off to teach as though nothing more than a nightmare had interrupted my ordinary and predictable life; if there was ever to be anything at all for me, it was the long road back — becoming sane.
Here, post-transformation, Kepesh decides he won’t accept what has happened. He calls it a crisis of faith, as he narrates this section after having accepted his lot in life. I was amused to no end as Kepesh tried to no avail to get his doctor (Doctor Klinger) to accept that he was mad and had not, in fact, transformed into a female breast.
“I am mad, though — aren’t I?”I asked.
I was set back only momentarily. I realized that I had inverted his meaning as easily, and as unconsciously, as we turn right side up the images that flash upon the retina upside down.
“I want to tell you,” I calmly explained, “that though you just answered yes when I asked whether I was mad, I heard you say no.”
He does finally overcome his crisis of faith, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him. Next he wants to know why; and furthermore why a breast?
Now, with Dr. Klinger’s assistance, I was trying to figure out just why, of all things, I had chosen a breast. Why a big brainless bag of dumb, desirable tissue, acted upon instead of acting, unguarded, immobile, hanging, there, as a breast simply hangs and is there? Why this primitive identification with the object of infantile veneration? What unfulfilled appetites, what cradle confusions, what fragments out of my remotest past could have collided to spark a delusion of such classical simplicity?
He persists in intellectualizing about his condition, posing questions, looking into his mind, looking into his past. He used to be a professor of literature, and for years he taught Kafka, Gogol and Swift. Perhaps there’s an answer there.
Did fiction do this to me? “How could it have?” asks Dr. Klinger. “No, hormones are hormones and art is art. You are not suffering from an overdose of the great imaginations.” “Aren’t I? I wonder. This might well be my way of being Kafka, being a Gogol, being a Swift. They could envision the incredible, they had the words and those relentless fictionizing brains. But I had neither, I had nothing — literary longings and that was it. I loved the extreme in literature, idolized those who wrote it, was virtually hypnotized by the imagery and the power — ” “And? Yes? The world is full of art lovers — so?” “So I took the leap. Made the word flesh. Don’t you see, I have out-Kafkaed Kafka.”
The intellectualizing doesn’t help, though. How could it have? He is a breast and that is that. He has his urges, and that is that. The world is banal. He is banal. It is time to accept it. These high-minded complexes Kepesh tries to create for himself simply won’t work for anything other than denial and diversion.
Of course, for a reader like me, a reader who was fed from the politicalized and psychologized interpretive schools for literature and life, a reader who much preferred the passages of intellectualizing to the scenes portraying the banal, it’s a difficult sentiment to buy. The book, then, remains not entirely successful. That’s not to say it isn’t worthwhile. It is very well written, of course. And though I found what it was saying much less satisfying than what it was decrying, that doesn’t make it less interesting, particularly in the hands of Philip Roth. How can I not prefer that fiction did this to Kepesh? And I’m happy to keep reading the fiction of Kepesh.