Sunday, February 28, 2010

324. The Breast - Philip Roth

History: This book was published in 1972.
Plot: David Kepesh, becomes a 155-pound breast. Throughout the book Kepesh fights with himself. Part of him wishes to give in to bodily desires, while the other part of him wants to be rational. Kepesh, a literature professor, compares his plight with that of fictional characters such as Gregor Samsa in Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis and Kovalyov in Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Nose". Throughout the novel, he describes the various sexual and physical feelings he has while people handle him, while initiating sex with his girlfriend, and while he is alone.
During a stay on the beach with his girlfriend, Claire, Kepesh had wished to have breasts, to be a breast, and he struggles with the idea that apparently this wish was fulfilled while other more important wishes were not.
Review: What follows is a deliriously funny yet touching exploration of the full implications of Kepesh's metamorphosis—a daring, heretical book that brings us face to face with the intrinsic strangeness of sex and subjectivity. The Breast is terrific for a thing of its kind: inventive and sane and very funny, though filthy.
It's incredible, in fact, how smart he is for a man so hung up with his you-know-what. 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: 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.
Opening Line: "It began oddly."
Closing Line: "You must change your life."
Quotes: 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."
Rating: Okay.

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