‘The Breast’

When I was younger, I would read anything I could get my hands on that promised to be in any way about sex.  The promised connection might be tenuous in the extreme, but I would read it, anyway, and hope.

So, you can imagine my excitement when, in the 4th grade, perusing my parents’ library, I discovered a book called ‘The Breast’, by Philip Roth (I didn’t know it then, but Philip Roth can be absolutely relied upon to write about sex, always, even when you long for him to stop).

I waited until one afternoon when my parents were suitably occupied, and I crouched behind one of the big wing-backed chairs (Lord only knows what I thought that would accomplish – I was perfectly visible, and must have looked quite stupid) and read the entire thing.

The Breast’ is a novella Roth published in 1972.  It’s about a man named David Kepesh who turns into a giant breast.  It’s excruciatingly boring.  Whatever attraction they hold for some, breasts aren’t characterologically interesting.  And Roth, who hasn’t been able, in his decades of authorship, to imagine a single fully realized female character (besides Anne Frank, for whom he cannot take credit), probably wasn’t the best candidate to make a man-sized breast into an interesting, three-dimensional figure.

Of course, the penis is the only organ Roth has ever really been interested in – his own stars in nearly all of his books.  And, though it would seem an impossibility, his penis even stars in ‘The Breast’ – it simply turns into the nipple of the eponymous breast (literally).  Much of ‘The Breast’ is spent in long and loving description of the seemingly endless spongebaths the nipple receives from the nurses at the hospital.

Roth, and ‘The Breast’, taught me an important literary lesson that day, behind the wing chair: in the hands the right (or wrong) monomaniac, even sex, that great and complicated human motivator, can be boring.

Philip Roth, despite my irritations with him, is considered a great American author for a reason, and ‘The Breast‘ is not one of his masterpieces.  To get a better sense of why he is loved by so many, try Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, or Operation Shylock.

The book which features Anne Frank as a character is The Ghost Writer, and it is also, in my opinion, one of his best.


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