Making the Breast of a Bad Situation

“I am a breast,” says the narrator of one of the strangest American books ever written. Writing self-consciously in the surreal tradition of Gogol and Kafka—who gave us “The Nose” and “The Metamorphosis,” respectively—Philip Roth offers in The Breast one David Kepesh, who sometime between midnight and 4 a.m. on Feb. 18, 1971, mutates from a 162-pound healthy English professor into a 155-pound breast. Like Kafka, Roth does everything in his power to make the transformation as matter-of-fact and unsurreal as possible. Very quickly, we accept Kepesh as a very big tit with a five-inch nipple at one end. He's a breast who can think and feel and even talk (though he can't see) and who is put in a great hammock-like device in a hospital, where he is studied and visited by his doctor, his psychiatrist, his loyal girlfriend, his father and his nurse.

The first half of the 1972 novella is exhilaratingly funny, mainly because one of the first things Kepesh discovers in the hospital is that the daily ritual of having his nipple oiled by his nurse is insanely arousing. He can't come by nipple stimulation, poor thing (he's not that lucky kind of breast), “but the sensations were almost more than could be borne, deliciously 'almost' . . . more intense, it seems, for coming to me in a state of complete helplessness, in utter darkness, and from a source unknown to me, seemingly immense and dedicated solely to me and my pleasure.” With little else to absorb him (aside from his despair at the suchness of his condition), he enlists his girlfriend to massage him into sensual frenzies that leave him swooning and swaying in his hammock. This very serious professor of literature ends up confessing to his psychiatrist, “I want her to do it all the time, every minute she's here. . . . I don't even want to talk any more. I just want her to squeeze me and suck me and lick me. . . . I want her to get up on me and roll on me. Oh, Doctor, you know what I really want? I want to fuck her!”

Turn a man into a breast and that's still all he wants? Actually, it makes all sorts of surreal sense. What the story is really getting at—and this is vintage Roth—is the consequences of a sensual desire that's absolutely unbounded. What a man wants is pleasure, the pleasure (if he's straight) he gets from a woman's body; the breast, being the psychic locus of his desire (it's Mom, the original fount of all dreams of bliss), is what he wants to get closest to. But for desire—being what it so unalterably is—getting close is never enough: it wants to dissolve all boundaries and become what it wants. “The Breast,” thus, sets itself to be about a man who is given the opportunity to lose human form—and with it those things like “moral restraint” and “human dignity” that keep him from sensual abandonment—and connect him to the source of his desire.

But Roth, being what he so unalterably is, slams on the brakes in the novella's second half, insisting on pitting the outrageousness of his protagonist's condition against Kepesh's attempt to discover the meaning of his transformation and “come to terms,” even “adjust” to it in a, believe it or not, dignified and restrained way. That the ending doesn't come off is no surprise—it's not novelistically satisfying—but it's fascinating for Roth fans and scholars who love to watch him work out his obsessions. Roth, who later wrote a prequel to The Breast called The Professor of Desire, has spent a career professing and despairing over desire (there's a third Kepesh novella, published in 2001, called The Dying Animal), and in this bizarre little fable imagined in the purest way he ever had the abyss of sensual delight. Here he looked deep into it—and stepped back at the fright.

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