Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

In the Roth Archives: The Evolution of Philip Roth’s Kepesh Trilogy 1

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

In the Roth Archives: The Evolution of Philip Roth’s Kepesh Trilogy 1

Article excerpt

As the least narratively coherent of Roth's recurrent narrators, David Kepesh is also one of Roth's most enigmatic characters. Perhaps this is excusable; Roth wrote the Kepesh novels during vastly different eras, and, as such, they reflect vastly different interests. For all the frustration this can induce in readers desiring a clearly-defined trilogy, arguably Kepesh's incongruity and ambiguity helped The Dying Animal (2001), the third and final novel in the Kepesh trilogy, receive a significant amount of scholarly attention in recent years. Velichka Ivanova and Debra Shostak are among the critics who convincingly interpret the novel as a critique of certain kinds of toxic masculinity. In addition, Shostak evaluates how the Kepesh trilogy "explore[s] the consequences for sexuality and self-concept when the gendered perspective of a consciousness shifts position" (Countertexts 7)-highlighting the ludic skittishness of the trilogy as a unit.

Scholars have remarked very little on this skittishness and have largely considered the first two novels in the trilogy to be a faint embarassment. For example, in his monograph Philip Roth, David Brauner makes an indicative argument that "The Dying Animal is, along with the other Kepesh novels, among [Roth's] weaker work" (223). Whilst the increase in scholarly work done on The Dying Animal has mitigated this, little work on the previous two novels exists,2 resulting in an absence of scholarship that offers prolonged examinations of the construction of the books as a trilogy. As such, the gap between the first Kepesh novel (The Breast, 1972) and the second (The Professor of Desire, 1977) is particularly important insofar as it reflects a commitment on Roth's part to avoid a linear narrative of either surreal Kafkan fantasy or Bildungsroman character study.

The rise in studies of the Kepesh novels (or, at least, the figure of Kepesh as represented in The Dying Animal) has been coterminous with scholarly usage of the Philip Roth Papers in the Library of Congress, an archive whose vast collections of Roth-related material remain underutilized in Roth scholarship to date-although it has been deployed in recent works by Shostak, Patrick Hayes, and Josh Lambert, amongst others. These trends are crucial to this article, as is Shostak's notion of "the gendered perspective of a consciousness shift[ing] position," a conception of the trilogy that accounts for Roth's penchant for abrupt transformation and narrative inconsistency.

This article argues that the perceived faults of the Kepesh novels can mask their more subtle usefulness for Roth scholarship; in particular, by exploring the differences in the first two Kepesh novels, a sense of their significance within Roth's work can emerge. Beginning with a close reading of unfinished sequels to The Breast, this article will first track paths not taken and explore what their absence reveals about the text that would become The Professor of Desire. Branching into a discussion of the unusual publication history of The Breast, this article will then explore how Roth came to modify the text, positing that such changes evidence an uncertainty over the novel's representation of psychoanalysis in particular. Finally, this article will discuss how the techniques it has employed can provide a platform for a reexamination not only of the value of these works, but of the role of psychoanalysis in Roth's career more broadly.


The Breast did not remain a static text in Roth's bibliography. Evidence from both the Philip Roth Papers and subsequent published versions of the text reveal the novella to be in a consistently uncertain position; whilst it arguably represents a definable cultural moment (the growing disenchantment with psychoanalysis amongst the American intelligentsia), it is also demonstrably a work that Roth agonized over as his career progressed. This instability deepens the sense of fundamental unease that is detectable on a contextual, theoretical, and narrative level within the novel. …

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