Review of The Breast by Philip Roth

A plot worthy of Woody Allen initially turned me off, but I’m reevaluating my impression toward Roth, and this was short enough to read in one sitting.

Pristine prose stylings are why I read this author. Not always polished to a high gleam, not Nabokov, but well-rhythmed, easy to read, often intelligent in scope and content. That’s Roth in a nutshell. When he is in good form.

I can say I was surprised by this one. It ponders tried and true questions: Hypochondria, old age, shame, fear, the neuroses of modern men – all trademark Roth. He makes use of extreme intimacy, as usual, to gain the reader’s trust. A skillful manipulator of language, his stock libidinous narrator is back, giving us a skewed look at the trials of marriage, attraction, and deception, the cruelty of fate, the slippery slope of self-medication, the persistence of psychological wounds, all familiar territory, but displaying much compassion for the human condition. The introduction of the absurdist concept is the primary thrust into a debate of these topics in the form of a relentless interior monologue. He never slides into pure surrealism, but the book calls for strong powers of suspension of disbelief. You will be glad to know the author retains his formal approach to storytelling, and rewards the attentive reader.

Bitterness, dry wit, and morbid humor pervade the whole, and sophisticated, clinical descriptions create vivid, nauseating mental images throughout, while the sheer ridiculousness, and the Freudian fixations can be wearying, it’s nonetheless brutally compact, verging on inane only to blossom into a meaningful meditation on the fear of mortality – “The will to live.” A vivid evocation of desperation, helplessness, being trapped in a physical body which eternally fails to live up to expectations, and becomes, over time, a prison – such are the trappings of this brief, and seemingly out-of-place publication.

Contemplating the triviality of life, the narrator confronts the meaninglessness during the ad hoc recovery process resultant from his dreamlike predicament. Learning to live with oneself, one’s shape or condition, and facing hideous reality becomes the central proponent and ultimately won my esteem.

It asks, how much can one man take? Roth has mastered a well-constructed sentence and a balanced prose voice. This is no exception. His novels are examinations of the human emotion, strained and entering trial, but taking small comfort in daily interactions, and usually, bodily functions.

With The Breast, he manages to convey an engrossing inner conflict, shows that, as in Gogol’s and Kafka’s stories of metamorphoses, human nature is not altered by bodily transformation. Objectification, taboos, self-loathing, and some apt observations and well-pulled-off sentences round out the reading experience. No matter how off the rails Roth gets, he always has something striking to say about our plight as human beings.

As the narrator says:

‘This is not tragedy any more than it is farce. It is only life, and I am only human.”

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