The Professor of Desire by Phillip Roth: For Every Suicide, His Own Noose

The first quarter of this novel required some patience, as the narrator, David Kepesh, seems determined to live up to Roth's reputation for being overly fascinated with the workings of his dick. Sex bores, like golfers and new-minted religious converts, insist on sharing 12-step stories of repression, inhibition and liberation, how they discovered orgasm and its variations (like the golf bore. forever working on their stroke), and how the wicked world (parents, churches, discarded lovers) doesn't understand their need-- no, their right!-- to find things to rub their genitals against.
But all this might be set-up, establishing the character as a rake, someone who considers himself a sophisticate when it comes to sex, but naive as a goat in a tiger trap when it comes to love. The novel takes on depth and becomes quite moving when Kepesh meets his nemesis, Helen, a woman he seems matched with erotically and in the constant search for peak experiences, but utterly hopeless as a spouse. I use "nemesis" here most carefully, in the magical sense of a personal doom especially designed by fate or one's own character to cause the maximum destruction. The fidgety smoker sucks on cigarettes until he ends by taking the smoke in through a tracheotomy; the Professor of Desire finds a Helen.
At its most simple, Helen is a "drama queen", as addicted to extremes in romance-- Hong Kong, married millionaires, and opium-- as Kepesh was to gymnastics with hot Swedes. Once Kepesh becomes her husband, someone with dry cleaning and envelopes to mail, she converts him from her lover into her jailer.
The last half of the book, the part worth getting to, concerns Kepesh's recovery from the end of his marriage and Helen's burning of another Illium. This is achieved by the matter-of-fact advice of a therapist, and, no surprise, the discovery of a new love, the grounded and loving (and Kepesh being Kepesh, large breasted and blonde) Claire-- but the book ends with a cliffhanger, a worm of fear gnawing at Kepesh like Blake's worm in the rose.
Visiting with his widowed father and an elderly Holocaust survivor, two men who've lost the people they loved, the Professor of Desire is terrified that all happiness, even his contentment with Claire, is provisional and temporary. He seems convinced that he will one day fall out of love with Claire, as bored with her as Helen was with him, that instead of putting one foot in front of the other and building a substantial life as his therapist instructed him, he will go off again in search of peak experiences. The older men seem to understand by instinct how much of life requires tending your own garden and showing up for work, but David Kepesh is hypnotized by possibility and potential, chasing Maya: the illusion of desire.


Jim H. said...

This review is so well done, I feel like I don't have to read the book!

Reminds me a little of Giles Goat Boy, which I could never quite finish off.

Michael Fountain: Blood for Ink said...

Not exactly the result I was aiming for... anyway, you don't read literary novels to find out "what happens next" but to walk around in someone else's life and philosophy and by expanding our experience become just a bit more human. You don't get the experience by reading a synopsis. I didn't include quotes although
I was often moved by specific moments of realization, because their power came from the accumulated text. Not in the least like Goat Boy (I find Barth unreadable, too).