Philip Roth: The Breast

When I first started reading Roth, there was one of his early titles that sounded, well . . . interesting: The Breast (1972).  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 Breastis 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.

He laughed.

“I am mad, though — aren’t I?” I asked.

“No.”

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.

Didfiction 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.

8 thoughts on “Philip Roth: The Breast

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Interesting, and a good review. I must say I’ve avoided this one, both due to the savaging it has had recently (in light of the release of, as a kind of arbitrary companion-piece to, The Humbling) and due to the Kafka-esque overtones I had assumed it employed unsuccesfully (though I hoped it might have shades of Woody Allen about it as well). Basically, Trevor, it looked like a frivolous exercise, a light-hearted scribble, but maybe it’s worth looking at.

  2. Trevor says:

    I would have avoided it had it not been the first of a type of trilogy. And I would say that it is a bit more than a light-hearted scribble, but to be frank, the light-heartedness is its best feature. It’s fun to listen to Kepesh try to intellectualize himself out of his predicament, but it’s not nearly as fun to watch Roth comment on psychology literary interpretation — though it is interesting.

    Honestly, I sympathize with one thing that Roth is saying in this book. I got out of academia primarily because of how I felt it wasn’t about the writing as much as about the politics of interpretation. I didn’t like the feeling of trying to attribute a meaning to something when it simply wasn’t there. It felt, strangely, so self-important. Now, I know the arguments against me; I’ve heard them many times. And don’t get me wrong, I love discussing theory and interpretive schools of thought. But this is not the primary pleasure I take from a book.

  3. Lee Monks says:

    I totally side with you on this, Trevor. Many an author was impossible for me to go anywhere near for years due to the feeble pastime (and that’s what I consider it: a dismal by-product of restless meddling and arbitrary joy-sapping for the sake of glib, po-faced intellectualisation) of freighting them under a raft of hypothetical, academic, tenuous, interpretative strata. Dissection and sterile demolition. ‘Attributing meaning’. What we ended up with on our degree course was little more than ‘derive an interpretation'; nothing was refutable and anything went, but yet there was always an overriding ‘theme’ that was best adhered to for optimum accreditation. It was a nonsense, a game, and had very little to do with the book itself which became a kind of junkyard of elemental gleanings.

    Do you ever daydream about a potential alternative to literary acamdemia?

    That ‘The Breast’ is a lighthearted scribble should be far from off-putting; though for some reason was! I think I imagined reading it at some point as part of a collection. That’s not to denigrate his intentions any, I guess that’s just my leanings. Portnoy is wonderful of course so I’m not sure where my trepidation lies.

  4. Trevor says:

    Do you ever daydream about a potential alternative to literary acamdemia?

    For myself? I made the dream a reality and chose law school. Of course, I miss so much of what academia had to offer. For the academy itself? Hard to imagine one right now. I saw a lot of good out there and admired many of my professors and colleagues who knew what they were doing and didn’t try to play these games. They were sad about the way things were too.

  5. Emily says:

    Bypassing the discussion of the bull-shitted nature of literary academia, I thought you may (or may not) find it interesting that this was the first Roth book I read (and from there I continued reading). Although I was aware of Roth and many of his writings, I had never actually indulged, not knowing where to start in the catalog and, truthfully, I just had plenty of other things I was interested in checking out. My boyfriend and I spent a rainy afternoon reading it aloud, handing off the paperback every couple of chapters. We laughed the entire way through because as you said, “the light-heartedness is its best feature.”

    (I now find myself giggling through most of Roth’s commentary if only because I find it’s articulation poignant and observant.)

    Would I feel differently if I hadn’t read it aloud? Possibly. But I think there’s something to experiencing both prose and poetry in different ways– reading, listening, speaking… Do you ever find yourself playing with your method of delivery as you blast through different kinds of material? Or are your methods pretty set?

  6. Trevor says:

    Do you ever find yourself playing with your method of delivery as you blast through different kinds of material? Or are your methods pretty set?

    Interesting questions, Emily. I’ve never though about it, and I’d be interested in hearing what others say on this topic.

    While my method is pretty standard — I read a lot on the train — I do pay close attention to sound and will read out loud when I get a chance. I once read As I Lay Dying out loud in one sitting. It might sound a bit pathetic because I did it by myself one day when I was alone and it had snowed so hard there was no getting anywhere, but I do consider that one of my better literary experiences. I try to listen to readings when I get a chance, and I frequently download podcasts of readings and the like. I often read short stories out loud, as was the case with the one I will be posting about tomorrow. Also, though this isn’t material I cover on the blog (except in the post I have set up for Monday), I read out loud to my children almost everyday. And I also don’t cover much poetry on this site (except in a post I have set up for the near future — all my exceptions are coming out here, I see), I do read almost all of the poetry I read out loud.

    Still, the way I get through most of my material is by reading on the train. However, the last book I finished, Porcupines and China Dolls is a book that is written as if it is being told orally. Though I was reading it silently, I had to imagine it being read out loud to appreciate it — otherwise, frankly, it would not have succeeded with me. Not the same as reading it out loud or listening to it out loud, but something to be mindful of in a pinch!

    Roth is a great example of this too: his characters’ rants almost have to be heard or read with an ear.

  7. Emma says:

    Hello,
    I’ve just read this and your review is excellent.

    I sympathized with Kepesh and was interested in his questionning his identity, like in The Nose. I also thought it was very funny.
    As I didn’t study literature, I can’t tell if it has a special meaning or if it belongs to a precise literature movement.

  8. Betsy says:

    Emma, I am so glad you drew us back to this wonderful interchange. Trevor, I have have not read everything you’ve written! Emma’s remark led me here, and I want to say how glad she did!

    You, Trevor, say: “Honestly, I sympathize with one thing that Roth is saying in this book. I got out of academia primarily because of how I felt it wasn’t about the writing as much as about the politics of interpretation. I didn’t like the feeling of trying to attribute a meaning to something when it simply wasn’t there. It felt, strangely, so self-important. Now, I know the arguments against me; I’ve heard them many times. And don’t get me wrong, I love discussing theory and interpretive schools of thought. But this is not the primary pleasure I take from a book.”

    One of the pleasures of Mookse and Gripes (and there are many) is that your reviewing is never self-important. Instead, you respect that many of these authors are new to us, and you try to give them the fair play they deserve.

    And hurray to your comment to Emily that reading aloud is one of the great ways to experience a book.

    Philip Roth – you are so positive on Roth here and elsewhere, it feels like time to begin the Roth oddysey.

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