The Unavoidable Comedy

"The stupidity of being oneself. The unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all."

I read Philip Roth's The Dying Animal a few days ago. I hated it. I think it's fair to say that. I hated it, but I read it anyway. I found a copy of it on the shelf near the bathroom, the one tucked in the alcove at the top of the stairs, while I was excavating the thick stacks of books, searching for more Paul Auster (on the same shelf I uncovered two copies of Man in the Dark and a hardback copy of Travels in the Scriptorium, so not a fruitless endeavor). Anyway, The Dying Animal. An uncorrected bound proof. It was strange to find it in this state - it was published in 2001, why did we have this uncorrected proof, with its flimsy yellow construction-paper cover? I had never read any Philip Roth before. I know I keep saying that - I had never read any Paul Auster before, I had never read any this before, any that before - and if it highlights the enormous gaps in my literary education, let it also indicate a curiosity, a willingness to admit these gaps and then fill them. But I had never read any Philip Roth before and I thought, from the back cover description, that maybe I would like this one.

I hated it - well, if not immediately, then almost immediately. The pleasure of the opening pages - promising! - was diminished by what came after, diminished by my irrational reaction to the white-haired professor's young lover and her "cream-colored silk blouse". Why should a cream-colored blouse matter so much to me? The repetition, I guess. Pages and pages of her big breasts and her bowlike lips and her startling self-awareness. None of it ultimately incidental, but all of it seemingly gratuitous. Why do I hate her cream-colored silk blouse? But no matter why: I do, and even so I read the book, the whole book, though I'd be lying if I said I hadn't simply skimmed the last few pages, coming to the last lines breathlessly and excitedly. At some point during my reading I remembered that Roth had once been shortlisted for some sort of bad sex award.

But it's this book, not its author, that I object to. And this line - extracted, as it happens, from its sexually explicit setting: "The stupidity of being oneself. The unavoidable comedy of being anyone at all." This I like.