Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Professor of Desire - Philip Roth

The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth was published in 1977, when Roth was 44. Now 75, Roth is arguably the most celebrated living novelist in America (excepting J.D. Salinger, who published his last book around the time Roth was publishing his first, and who has remained one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time). Last year Exit Ghost won many favorable reviews, and the year before last Everyman proved that he could write as effectively about aging as anyone before him. He has won very many awards which are listed in the flaps of any of his books. He is extremely prolific. He is the last "youngest" great. But, as a professor of mine once stated, "Even Homer nods," and likewise, even Roth can be deemed "average" when it seems like he's doing his best not to repeat himself.

The novel (like several others apparently) features David Kepesh, who has not been turned into a breast, but who does dream of meeting the whore that Kafka used to visit, introduced to her by his childhood hero and muse invoked to open the novel, Herbie Bratasky, a young entertainer who works at the hotel David's parents own and maintain. David goes to school at Syracuse for undergrad, goes abroad to London and meets two girls/whores who have a threesome with him and then leave him always feeling as if adventure seeped out of his sexual life thereafter, then goes to Stanford for graduate study, and meets Helen. Helen is beautiful, but crazy, and still loves a man who once took her to Hong Kong and asked if she would be an accomplice in his wife's murder, so that they could be together without any troubles. Helen often wishes she went along with him, later, and starts doing lots of cocaine, and does annoying things that make David want to divorce her, and finally they do, and then he is alone in New York, subletting from an actor, seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Klinger, somehow corresponding with the Schonbrunns, fellow professor and wife at Stanford, and eventually meeting Claire, somewhat more simple than Helen, but much more sane, and much better for David, and eventually everything ends rather happily.

There are good moments in this book. The beginning is pretty good, the middle is pretty good, but once all the action shifts to David flying to Hong Kong to find Helen and then divorce afterwards, it begins to seem more tepid. However, David's first-person-narration never really cuts himself any slack, and he constantly doubts whether or not he will be able to love Claire forever without wanting something more, and towards the end, these are the most eye-opening segments, whereas in the beginning the novel discusses nearly every sexual whim one could expect to come across in a textbook. That is the problem of the book for me. The beginning is very dirty and the ending is very nice. It goes from XXX to PG in 250 pages. It is an inconsistent tone, but I suppose, David is also growing up, is he not? And with maturity comes family, and with family comes family films, the second half of which, Professor of Desire could pass itself off as.

As previously mentioned in the Doctor Faustus post, oeuvre is an important consideration in reviews. I have only read "Goodbye, Columbus," Portnoy's Complaint, and Everyman. Where does POD rank? At the bottom of those, unfortunately! But it is still a very good book. A light read, a vaguely guilty pleasure, but meritorious nonetheless. I believe, at heart, POD is an attempt at classifying desire which cannot be realistically aligned with a long life of monogamy and temperance. For attempting to intimate the myriad complexities of the allure of crazy sex, POD earns an above-average review. Certain moments in the novel (between two and four, perhaps) approach a fragile sort of poetry which occassionally made me think it was about to kick into high gear. As previously stated though, this novel starts high and ends low, though not without its charms. Even the PG ending is rather charming. David's father is probably the most ebullient character in the novel, but it is his poverty of education that mirrors the suffocated structure of the novel, not the offbeat humor or old fashioned common sense.

Where Portnoy's Complaint may be no-holds-barred, Professor of Desire attempts a sweeter veneer, and ends sounding just a tiny bit fake (but, importantly, true to life) . "Goodbye, Columbus" is probably a more entertaining PG read and Everyman certainly contains more life lessons than Kepesh Sr. can hope to elucidate for all these crazy young people, such as the ones who turn his hotel into a ski lodge after he retires. All things considered, POD is a quality book, but little more than that. It is light, it might make you laugh, and it might be fun for you to compare the crazy things that have happened in your past relationships with Kepesh's odd experiences. And of course, any novel that has a character cry because she wants more than anything to be penetrated from behind can't be all bad.

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