Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

I just finished reading The Dying Animal and was thinking about it when it occured to me that it was startlingly similar to Marquez's Memories of my Melancholy Whores. I will try to expound my argument but really my college essay days are long gone and such an exercise will probably lose steam all too soon. So to make the long story short, they are both slight books (by the authors' standards at least) primarily about distinguished old men's nubile obsessions (obviously with more profound connotations about mortality, desire, aesthetics - all those incredibly broad and elusive topics that amateur writers rightly shy away from).


I have often wondered what on earth would possess these men to write these books at this time. Context has always been a key factor in literature for me and I was frankly puzzled as to why a 21st century writer would feel that another book about paternilistic desires would be relevant. Aren't the days of this kind of writing gone, eradicated by the decades of women's movements, protests from writers of color, etc? Though Marquez is a Latino, he is firmly esconced in the literary firmament (a position he fully deserves) and few could now argue that his is the voice of the subaltern. Yet these books present themselves as an appeal, launching a protest of some sort. In one instance, Roth's titular character, Kepesh, bemoans the decline of brotherhood. Seriously.

And what of the women? They are presented as mere extensions of the septuagenarians' desires - non-agential and mostly speechless. It turns out that despite their youth - the single weapon in their pitiable defense against their more competent counterparts - these womens' lives are even more precarious, they are fragile little things, subjected to the notorious male gaze and existing only within refracted memory and fantasy. All art is propaganda is a slogan I have often heard, and if this is so, aren't the politics of these books archaic, anachronistic?

Yet it was just when I was completely repulsed & overtaken by emotion that these books dealt their hardest punch. I read Memories a long while ago so the details are not as clear as they are with Roth's work and the exact moment of epiphany is easier to pinpoint in the latter book. While Kepesh is presented as the main protagonist, offering the reader innumerable theories, I thought the book focuses it's strongest arguments not through the Gutter Girls as I had read in a review, but in Kepesh's friend - George, is it? - who offers a stern criticism against merging emotion with aesthetic appreciation (which is idealized in its purest form - unaffected by emotional entanglement or morality) only to die pages later in what has to be the most gruesome scene in the book. After having lived his life as an embodiment of this aesthetic ideal he dies a slow and painful death, withering away on his bed, surrounded by the family he had neglected in his pursuit of pleasure. In a scene that would ordinarily imply a warm and peaceful farewell, one can't help but sense the irony - if George, a bonified casanova, had lived his life so fully, look how pathetic he is now, humiliated in front of the very people he had shunned. The irony is not lost on his estranged wife, whom after having let George grope at her breasts in what seems like post-partem twitches, mutters absently to Kepesh - I wonder who he thought I was.

And yet Kepesh lives. In fact, he outlives. The only truly hegemonic character in the novel, never holding too tightly onto anything - pure aestheticism, his on-again-off-again love/obsession with Consuela - Kepesh manages to escape with his dear life from the trappings of dogmatic beliefs. We see all the other characters attached to their shrines - be it to that of the sexual revolution, pure aestheticism, hedonism, filial loyalty (a god's a god) - stifled by the weight; and above it all is Kepesh, betraying them one time and embracing them the other.

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