Today I'm back with another book review. The Breast is a novella written by an American author Philip Roth. Originally published in 1972, it openly references classical works of literature, such as Gogol's The Nose and Kafka's Metamorphosis. Is this short novel a long cry from the books it references? In a way, The Breast is indeed a far cry from classical literature, but it is still attention worthy. If you want to know why, read on.
WHAT KIND OF NOVEL IS THIS?
In many ways, The Breast is a wonderfully original novel. I would say that it can certainly be classified as good literature. It is certainly not a trashy novel (as trashy as Roth can get, he is too clever a writer to overdo it). Basically, The Breast is a story of a man who gets turned into a giant breast. No, I'm not joking, that's really it. I know, the idea is rather cheeky, and Ruth is determined to push it as far as he can, yet somehow this novel managed not to turn into something absurd.
The idea of metamorphosis is by no means new, but that doesn’t mean that Roth doesn’t give it his own signature touch. The protagonist of this story is a literature professor Kepesh who, quite literally, because of incomprehensible reasons, gets transformed into a giant breast. His character is clearly, the focus of this novel, and for much of the novel he questions both himself and his sanity. However, Kepesh's relationship with other characters, as for example his loyal girlfriend and devoted father are just as important. As you can imagine, their conversation do get a bit absurd and often quite funny as well, but this novel is more than a mere parody.
While The Breast obviously takes inspiration from Gogol’s The Nose and Kafka’s Metamorphosis (a fact often mentioned in the book itself), it is very much written in Roth’s style. In other words, it is fabulously absurd and more than a little grotesque. It is written very cleverly- it had to be for it to be readable, for let’s face it- it is bizarre in a whole new way. It walks a fine line, mixing banal and vulgar topics with more substantial ones.
“I am a breast. A Phenomenon that has been vastly described to me as "a massive hormonal influx, "a endocrinopathic catastrophe" and/or "a hermaphroditic explosion of chromosomes" took place within my body between midnight and 4 A.M. on February 18, 1971, and converted me into a mammary gland disconnected from any human form.”― Philip Roth,
HOW DID I LIKE THIS NOVEL?
Well, to be honest, I wasn't crazy about it. At times, I felt it like Ruth was having too much fun writing it. He is one smart guy, no doubt about that, but sometimes it seems to me that he gets carried away with his vulgarities. Maybe because he knows he can get away with it? Maybe because he knows he is good enough a writer to walk that fine line? Not that it is wrong to get carried away like that, but good literature is often about balance. If you want to walk that fine line between vulgarity and art, you should perhaps have good reasons for that. Not that writing a fun novel isn't good enough of a reason but balancing that fine line isn't enough to really impress me as a reader. The Breast is an original and fun novel, but it is no masterpiece. On goodreads, I gave it 3 out of five. I did enjoy reading this one, and yet, just like the protagonist of this novel, I wasn't left completely satisfied.
WHAT DID I ENJOY THE MOST ABOUT THIS NOVEL?
What I enjoyed the most was the way The Breast questioned the link between our identity and our appearance. Professor Kepesh’s predicament gives us an opportunity for a philological exploration of who we are and to what extent we are limited by our body. In particular, the protagonist’s constant questioning of his own sanity was well written and seemed to invite further questioning. I felt that this novel raised a lot of interesting questions about who we are and how we interact with others as well as managed to comment on the fragility of human identity. However, I also felt that the book was too brief (and sometimes also too banal) to really explore anything in depth. It is certainly fresh and edgy, though.
BOOKISH MEDITATIONS AND SITCOM SITUATIONS
There is a fair share of intertextuality in this text. Our narrator/protagonist, trying to explain his 'impossible to explain' transformation, makes many references to works of classic literature. These kind of bookish meditations give an interesting balance to more ‘fleshy’ and 'cheeky' observations of the protagonist prof. Kepesh, who often ponders the means of having sex in his condition (Does the fact he had turned into a giant female breast make him a lesbian?).
The conflict between the mind and the body takes a whole new meaning in this short novel. Besides being funny, many conversations in this book, bring sitcoms into mind. The protagonist being offended by the fact that his father doesn't kiss him goodbye when he leaves anymore, despite the fact that he is shaped like a giant female breast. Female is an important word to use, because it is not by accident, I'm sure, that Roth opted for a female part of the anatomy.
There is a lot of mixing in this novel, from gender identity to style of writing. Bookish meditation replaces by ridiculous conversations. Roth, our cheeky author also doesn’t miss the chance to make fun of the academia (the protagonist is one of those professors who take themselves very- perhaps a bit too much- seriously). All this contributes to creating a rather distinctive story, one that has Philp Roth written all over it.
WHAT DID THIS NOVEL TEACH ME?
The Breast has taught me that you can get away with a large amount of absurdity, if you happen to know how to write. It has also taught me that when a writer enjoys talking things too far a bit too much, it can result in originally, but it is hard to take a book like that very seriously. Nevertheless, The Breast has taught me that it is wonderful to be original. Not every book needs to a masterpiece. I would compare this novelette with Tarantino's films. Sometimes I don't like them, but I must admit they always feel authentic. At least he is not like everyone else in that copy paste land know as Hollywood. Tarantino's original, one's got to give him that. The same goes for Roth.
When I compare this novel to other Roth’s works, I do feel it is somewhat lacking. In my view, this is NOT one of Roth’s best work. Still, The Breast is fabulous in its grotesqueness and it even manages to be easily readable. It is also a short read, so if you’re NOT totally grossed by imagining a grown man in a form of an enormous breast interacting with others, do give it a read. It might not be his best work, but it is distinctly his in terms of writing style and topics it explores.
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