on August 31, 2004
The incredible Philip Roth, who gets stronger and stronger as the years go by, plunges further down into the sewer than he's ever gone before to give us Mickey Sabbath, an anti-hero if ever there was one. Think of him as Falstaff and Milton's Satan mixed with some Marquis de Sade....a personality so large and so outrageous that the more adventurous readers may find themselves shelving their morality for a little while in order to more gleefully bask in the filth. Sabbath is a 65-year-old man living in the quaint New England town of Madamaska Falls. He is a retired puppeteer (a dirty puppeteer, of course, until arthritis sidelined him), and now he lives off of a wife who is a recovering alcoholic, and spends all his free time and energy chasing the outermost boundaries of sexuality with Drenka, the inn-keeper's wife, who is more than willing to follow him to those boundaries and even lead him past them. A string of tragedies sends Mickey into a whirlwind and brings back a flood of memories from his troubled but colorful past. The narrative intermingling of past and present is on full display and will be familiar to readers of Roth. Also, this is one of the rare Roth books that doesn't have a first-person narrator, but an omniscient voice (of course, Roth's voice). Sabbath, however, is such an overwhelming presence that he often hijacks the narrative and runs off with it, particularly at those times when he seems to be coming apart at the seams. Those who are quick to always correlate the man Roth with his main characters should ask themselves how he can be so adept at switching points-of-view so quickly and without warning, and without risk of confusion. The answer is, because he's a master. Sabbath makes like Poldy in "Ulysses" and goes into stream-of-consciousness mode, and if you can get past the filth, you'll be privy to a character with a very disturbed internal life, but with a very strict code of conduct--"for a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence." But a lot of filth there is, and this book could definitely alienate more sensitive readers. It would be an understatement to say that this is the dirtiest book Philip Roth has ever written. It's probably closer to home to say that Roth in this book makes Henry Miller look like Jane Austen. A cosmos of depravity peppers the pages, climaxing (sorry) at the end of the novel in a flashback with Mickey and Drenka which will leave you yellow. Of Roth's more recent novels, this one moves at the surest pace, and finds the most nerve-racking balance between low comedy and high tragedy. Only "Operation Shylock", I think, gives it a run for its money, though I'm very much looking forward to his new one in October, "The Plot Against America."
There is profundity in the darkest, seediest corner and Mickey Sabbath desperately wants to grab hold of it. And Philip Roth lets you ride along for the fun at a safe distance.
on November 24, 2000
In Sabbath's Theater, Philip Roth finally showed us he could write a book in which neither Philip Roth nor his thinly-veiled stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, made an appearance.
The theme of Sabbath's Theater has been done before: a lecherous, unconventional man railing at the ravages of time and the dwindling of the sexual potency by which he has defined his very existence. Most of the time, however, this theme is poorly written, the characters trite and cliched. Roth, not surprisingly, invests this novel with more lyrical energy, more sexual frankness, sharper comedy and deeper seriousness than has any writer before.
Although Roth does make use of both flashback and association, the plot of Sabbath's Theater is brisk. Mickey Sabbath, who went off to sea at the age of eighteen just so he could visit the world's brothels, is a loathsome character. His abiding philosophy of life is simply to do whatever he pleases and never to worry about pleasing anyone else. Nothing phases him, in fact, he seems to take pleasure in his uncanny ability to antagonize others. Their outrage seems to be only a reflection of his own self-worth. Mickey Sabbath manages to hurt, deceive, betray, offend, insult and abuse just about everyone with whom he comes into contact.
A true degenerate, Mickey Sabbath may seem to lack any sense of moral conscience. Although anyone meeting such a character would deny it, Sabbath actually spent an idyllic childhood on the Jersey shore; a childhood that was shattered by a traumatic dual loss. In an effort to deal with his loss and the resultant pain, to stamp out the brutality of life, and, to affirm his own sense of aliveness, Sabbath turns to carnal pleasures with a vengeance, indulging each and every sexual impulse.
Even as Sabbath indulges his crasser nature, however, and casts a satirical eye on those who deny their sensual impulses, he still endeavors to understand himself and the workings of the universe. In fact, much of the novel's comic pathos is derived from the tension that exists between Sabbath's base nature and his lechery and his seemingly incomprehensible yearning for cosmic illumination.
There is a lot of graphic sex in Sabbath's Theater and most readers will probably find it simply too perverse. I did not enjoy reading this book, and, although I think I understand Mickey Sabbath, I have to admit that I hated him. He suffers, that cannot be denied, but he is simply so perverse, and his behavior so amoral, that I really didn't care.
To be fair, I do have to admit that the perversity in this book did enhance and advance my understanding of Mickey Sabbath and the conflicts in which he is embroiled. And Philip Roth is certainly better at creating degenerate, or at least morally ambivalent characters, than he is at creating the lofty or the solemn. His "good" characters are simply too good to be true, while Sabbath, much as we may despise him, is completely credible. He may be despicable and perverted, but at least he knows it.
The writing in Sabbath's Theater is absolutely first-rate; it is pure Philip Roth and it crackles with more energy and exuberance than Portnoys' Complaint. The characters are more complex, the narrative more sophisticated and the tonal range wider than many of Roth's other works. The ending of the book virtually drips with irony. This is a multi-layered novel and one that is brilliantly original. It also contains some of the funniest writing to be found anywhere in American fiction today. Sabbath's Theater is, at its heart, a darkly comic masterpiece of complexity from one of America's finest authors. But it is simply too perverse for most readers to enjoy.
on September 29, 1999
It pains me to see so many reviewers either entirely miss, or disregard, the key note of this book. That is, quite ironically, loss; the story uses an unconventional, intentionally confrontational approach to depict a sad struggle with spiritual and physical decay. Sabbath's lifelong inability to empathize with anyone (incuding himself) is his downfall and is NOT something Roth celebrates. Disgust with the scatology of this book comes from a reductionist reading; we can harbor some disgust only while taking up the challenge of feeling pity for the repulsive puppeteer, particularly in the masterful and heartbreaking encounters with Uncle Fish, his parents' graves, and all things past. An inspiring book, written in Roth's trademark lyric American vernacular, to be read and re-read.
on October 22, 2008
I first read Sabbath's Theater--my first encounter with Roth, for that matter--when it was initially published in the late 90s. I thought that it was the funniest book that I had ever encountered. I laughed so much that my girlfriend could not wait for me to finish it and went to buy her own copy. I was at that age when I had life by the tail. I was just finishing my MA, I was entirely comfortable with my subject, I was in love with a girl to whom I would eventually become wed, the gym, my bicycle, Nietzsche, Foucault: hell, life in general. In short, in spite of having had a brain tumor and thus possessing an understanding of the precarity (if I may employ a neologism) of life, or perhaps precisely because of that fact, I felt as if nothing in the world could slow me down. I was the illusory master of my universe. In Roth, and to the extent that Mickey Sabbath appeared to me to be so entirely himself I simply found confirmation that such mastery was indeed possible. For there is no doubt that ST is a text of absolute unmitigated brilliance; and, it was so incredibly, side-splitting funny.
Alas, having been thoroughly dethroned, Cronos having faced the Zeus that is life with all of its contingencies, I decided that I needed something a bit less morose than Iris Murdoch. Thus, I approached ST for the second time with a sense of great anticipation; I really needed something to lighten the load. In was during this encounter that I discovered what effect a true piece of art can impose upon its consumer. (I employ this term in the sense of taking into oneself and making a part of oneself, not in the sense of one who purchases things in a willy-nilly search for authenticity.) Indeed, 10 years, a proliferation of physical problems resulting from the earlier tumor, a divorce, and a 15 hour separation from my young child later, I discovered the "truth" of ST; it is one of the saddest works of fiction that I have ever encountered. Suddenly, Mikey Sabbath was a pitiful old man, thoroughly beaten by life. What I formerly perceived as his brilliant sense of humor was transformed into nothing more than a pervasive cynicism, which was absolutely necessary for him to hold on to, as it was his final impotent way in which to believe himself to exercise some control over the vicissitudes of life.
In short, re-reading ST, in an entirely different situation elicited an entirely different, indeed, diametrically opposed, reaction from me. Rather than despair, however, I suddenly understood that I was in possession of a truly sublime work of art. I could not recommend this book any more forcefully. It should be mandatory reading for any educated person, as should the rest of Roth's considerable oeuvre.
on September 25, 1998
A long time ago Alexander Portnoy (in an early Roth novel, Portnoy's Complaint) entreated someone, anyone, to put the id back in Yid.
Mickey Sabbath, the dirty old man who is the central character in Sabbath's Theater, does just that, and more. Sabbath acts on every instinctive urge that comes his way, never stopping to imagine consequences. And those urges push him to sexual and other behavior that is always bizarre, and often downright shocking. At times I could not believe what I was reading.
Yet at least a part of Sabbath's complicated motivation stems from his fear -- utter revulsion, really -- of death and all it entails. Death prevents Sabbath from seeing the need to ever conform to societal norms. And that blindness makes him a terribly tragic, yet very funny guy.
There are portions of this book that blew me away, like Roth's/Sabbath's (sometimes it's hard to determine who's doing the talking) observations about marriage, infidelity, sex, death, art, academia, etc.
Sabbath is ultimately a revolting character, and evokes little sympathy for his horrible plight. Yet he's one of the most fascinating characters in literature I've ever come across.
This book is incredible and very worth reading. But be warned, it's not for the squeamish. If you haven't read Roth, start with Portnoy and imagine what he might have become if everything in his life went wrong.
It is hard to know what to say about Sabbath's Theater. The 'hero', Mickey Sabbath is not a likeable or easily understood character. His approach to the other figures in the novel seems consistently hostile and predatory, yet we understand that such a facade masks a deep torment and an increasing fear of death. His preoccupation with sex (not unusual for a Roth character) is a way of affirming life in the face of his own aging and infirm existence.
The story is slight and the real thrust of the 'plot', after an intitial setup, is the question of whether Sabbath will chose to live or take his own life. However ugly Mickey's behavior and words are, Roth gives us something wonderful in each paragraph. We might not love Mickey, but it is hard to read this book and not be moved, impressed, and generally wowed by Roth's abilities as a writer. Wonderful reading.
on June 21, 2005
The epigraph to Roth's novel quotes Prospero, in Shakespeare's the Tempest, saying "Every third thought is my grave." The novel shows us graphically, again and again, what the other two thoughts might be. The human predicament--that everything of us, noble or ignoble, is going to wind up buried in the muck or as ashes sunk in water somewhere--is actually confronted with all the force Mickey Sabbath can marshal against it. And he brings the only force we have, the life force, to the battle.Crudely, rampageously, outrageously, ragingly and in a perverse way joyfully, he and his goddess-lover Drenka stick sex in the eye of death as often, as long, as much, as they possibly can. Never mind great art or centuries-enduring music, or monumental architecture. Those are only artifacts. Our LIFE is what we most want to keep, our love, our human love, is what it grieves us most to lose. And like Mickey, when we have lost it all, we can't help standing up to our ankles in the mud and the rain, unable to really want to die, because 'everything he hated was here.' A moving and beautiful and ultimate statement of the human condition.
on May 13, 2013
Okay, now I get it. Now I get the whole Philip Roth thing--book prize judges quitting in protest over him, the sheer volume of those praising and condemning him, even what I've called elsewhere "absurd"--the suggestion that Roth is a self-hating Jew. (I still think this labeling applied to anyone is absurd.) I get what all the fuss is about.
Or how about that recent incident where Roth told a young writer to quit, because the writing life is hell? A bunch of us, including Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love (oy vey), called him on this ridiculous claim because, hey, our life rocks! We write books! Roth should stop the silly moaning and groaning about his privileges.
I get all the fuss about this too.
But guess what: if you're Philip Roth, the writing life is hell. You will die doing it. It will kill you. Even if you "retire" and stop the fiction, it's terminal. You will die an ugly death.
Philip Roth, I will mourn you. I will mourn your death.
Now, I feel like I get it. I read Sabbath's Theater, which is only my second Roth, and my head is spinning.
This book is, in short, an outrage!
Let me just tell you some of my wild, unrehearsed thoughts.
The book is--have no illusions--pornographic. I'm not a fan of writing graphically about sex. First, I think it's silly. Second, I think it's silly. Third, I think it's silly. Fourth, I think it's often--but not always--unnecessary. Sometimes it works. I'm not much of a writerly prude. This book grossed me out, though. In fact, when I told my perv husband that the book was a bit much for me and he asked me to show it to him--more like this: he made a grab for it--I snatched it away. I needed to protect his delicate perv ears, and I'll be damned if he gets any weird ideas. I don't care how much we're getting along, we are not peeing on each other. And--I hate to break it to you, my beloved--we're not even bringing home some young girl. Nope. Not gonna happen. Don't call me Drenka. Not now. Not ever.
The book is gross.
That said, it's brilliant.
So how should you read it? Or should you read it at all?
I'm going to have to be elitist here, and say something snooty. It's not for everyone. It's not for my mom. It's not for many of my friends. It's not for my kids, for sure.
I don't know if it's for you; you'll have to make that call. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts on this amazing book.
The book is called "comedic" in a million places. I'm wondering who these freaks are who think it's funny. This book is tragic. It's tragic is an epic way. It's probably one of the best portraits of humanity truly abandoned by God. Existentialist man, alone. What does a man without a god really look like? I'm not sure what to make of this comedic thing. This is a deeply sad picture of a human without any meaning in his life whatsoever. It's painful to watch Mickey Sabbath, puppeteer for the Indecent Theater (get all those ironies?), try for suicide, try to get murdered. Dear God.
Sexual depravity really isn't my thing--I'm depraved in other ways--but I think Roth reveals depravity with the kind of truth that, well, I've never encountered before. I have to be honest: this is why I will highly recommend this book. Roth writes better about the heart of man than any other author I've ever read. Let me tell you this, and you can take it or leave it: I started drooling when my Love Slave was called "wincingly candid." Oh, I love wincing candor! I blushed! I flushed! Okay, I beamed with you-know-what!
But Roth? That man takes wincing candor to new heights. I've got nothing on him.
In short, Roth exposes the heart of human darkness in breathtaking candor, and you might want to read it. Though I think you should start with American Pastoral, which I did like better--and it's not sexually explicit at all.
I've got other thoughts:
It struck me, after I finished, that I used to be one of those stupid girls who liked "bad boys"--but those girls are full of s#&%. Those girls have no clue what real bad boys are like. Roth has written about the real bad boy and, trust me, none of us silly girls would want anything to do with him. We're just talking. Roth is smarter than us. You want to see what a real bad boy is like? Go here. It's not fun. Real bad boys are gross.
There is this part of me that thinks that anyone capable of writing this is probably a vile human being. Of course, I thought that when I first read Nabokov too. I don't anymore. What I do think, however, is that it's valid for Roth to suggest that the writing life is brutal. For anyone to delve so deeply into this kind of depravity, suffering is not so far off. I do not doubt Roth's genuine sorrow. A privileged life of sorrow?
You know, this book--interestingly enough--is similar to my all-time favorite book in the world, The Catcher in the Rye. Both books are about protagonists with dead brothers. These deaths were woven into their beings--intrinsic to their experiences in the world, coloring everything. What a fascinating contrast to make: Holden Caulfield and Mickey Sabbath!
Mostly--make no bones about it--this book is about man without God.
On his life as artist: "The main thing is to do what you want. His cockiness, his self-exalted egoism, the menacing charm of a potentially villainous artist were insufferable to a lot of people and he made enemies easily, including a number of theater professionals who believed that his was an unseemly, brilliantly disgusting talent that had yet to discover a suitably seemly means of `disciplined' expression."
Doing what you want. Where does it lead, after all? Like American Pastoral, this book ends perfectly. I won't give it away, but it's true. It's right.
How can one read Philip Roth without being infected? One can't. So there are other questions. How will you be infected? Is it worth it? For what end?
For myself, the answer is in the wincing candor. I'd like to be a student in the wincingly candid. He gets so close to the soul, so close indeed.
on January 13, 1998
Having read several of Roth's novels ("Zuckerman Unbound", "Operation Shylock", "Portnoy's Complaint", etc.), I can say that "Sabbath's Theater" ranks among his best - and among the best american fiction in recent years.
This is a book that, right from the first sentence, grabs the reader by the collar, makes him scream, laugh and cry. It's like a roller coaster for the soul, with scenes of brilliant humor joining others of intense pathos. I tell you, I even wept reading some pages, and that does not happen often when I read a book - specially if such pages describe people remembering how they made oral sex and urinated on each other.
But don't get me wrong. Far from being a book about odd sexual relations, this is a serious reflection on the passing of time, frustration and loss, and about the inevitable destiny of us all. As Prospero says in the quotation that opens the book: "Every third thought shall be my grave". So is Mickey Sabbath's, and so will be the reader's after finishing this magnificent book.
on February 7, 2010
The esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom stated that "Sabbath's Theater" is Philip Roth's masterwork, and I agree. It is certainly the darkest thing he has ever written and, as several reviewers have pointed out, his most sexually explicit. I would stop short of calling it pornography, because pornography is intended to titillate. The sexual explicitness in this book is hardly titillating; in fact, I'm sure the average reader would find it disgusting. It's principal purpose, I think, is to show the depths of Mickey Sabbath's degradation and, by extension, the depths of his self-hatred and loneliness. Incapable of true intimacy, Sabbath escapes his loneliness by frequent sexual encounters, some with women with whom he has established a relationship of sorts, and others that are completely anonymous, often with prostitutes.
Yet in spite of Sabbath's ability to repulse, I found him a sympathetic if unlikeable character. His encounter, toward the end of the book, with his 100-year old relative, leaves Sabbath shaken and moved and is the heart of the book and demonstrates that Sabbath is not all bad, that he does have feelings and a soul. If you have never read Roth before, do not begin with this book. But if you have read most of his books, you may be surprised to find that this book reaches depths that Roth has never plumbed before. Highly recommended.