How to put this delicately? Philip Roth‘s fifteenth novel, Sabbath’s Theater, is f@#$ing filthy. Between its covers are dispensed volumes of bodily fluids that put your average Roger Corman flick to shame, and in its frankness about the attendant pneumatics – the ins and outs, the reservoirs and receptacles – the book makes Nicholson Baker‘s “manstarch” look like so much marzipan, and The Rosy Crucifixion look like Make Way for Ducklings. Even Roth’s own earlier work starts to seem prim by comparison. Take, for example, the treatment of that Rothian hobbyhorse, onanism. In 1969, Alexander Portnoy’s violation of a piece of raw liver may well have been shocking. But in Sabbath’s Theater, published 26 years later, we watch the titular Mickey Sabbath visit a moonlit cemetery to jerk off onto his mistress’ grave. Not impressed? Consider that Sabbath’s efforts to commune with the late Drenka Balich are interrupted by a fellow mourner who has come to do the same (in all senses of the phrase). And that Sabbath sticks around to watch, and to snatch the bouquet on which his rival has climaxed.
Imagine then if someone had happened upon him that night, in the woods a quarter mile down from the cemetery, licking from his fingers Lewis’s sperm and, beneath the full moon, chanting aloud, “I am Drenka! I am Drenka!”
This is on page 78. The novel is 451 pages long.
Sabbath’s assignations may often approach the “top this” rhythm of vaudeville, but the sex in Sabbath’s Theater is also, as the mortuary setting here suggests, deadly serious. As in real life, lust is tangled up in a larger complex of forces encompassing morality, mortality, politics, history, and metaphysics…not to mention personal pathology. Mickey Sabbath is, at 64, a disgraced puppeteer and the last surviving member of his nuclear family. And in the wake of Drenka’s death, “Something horrible is happening.” He is rapidly approaching the end of his second marriage, and perhaps of his life more broadly. In the days that follow that overture in the graveyard, he will attend one friend’s funeral, proposition another friend’s wife, fight with his own wife, impersonate a homeless man, and contemplate suicide, all while maintaining a vigorous schedule of self-abuse. His trajectory, roughly, is King Lear’s – a comparison Sabbath’s Theater invites explicitly. But Sabbath, a triple-threat manipulator (i.e., by trade, inclination, and compulsion), can’t quite decide if he wants to play the potentate or the court jester.
His oscillations make the book excruciatingly funny, as real transgression often is. But they also license Sabbath – as madness licenses Lear and convention licenses his Fool – to voice painful truths, of the “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods” variety. Roth is monomaniacally committed to the perspective of his protagonist, and his free indirect narration (gravitating toward stream-of-consciousness) takes as its ground-note the proposition that, in the face of death, life is meaningless. But as Sabbath tests it, again and again, he somewhat bafflingly proves the opposite. In the love the novel lavishes on even the most sordid details, that is, and in the beautiful American idiom of its ire, Sabbath’s Theater amounts to a kind of perverse hymn.
This is not to say it’s pitched in a key all readers will respond to. Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” publisher Carmen Callil complained earlier this year, vis-a-vis her decision to resign in protest from the panel that had awarded him the Man Booker International Prize. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” She was exactly right, of course; she just couldn’t hear that she was describing Roth’s ambitions, rather than his shortcomings. (In a just world, all future editions of Roth’s novels would carry these sentences as a blurb.)
In recent years, Sabbath’s Theater has tended to get lost in the shadow cast by its more respectable successors. The late-innings Roth revival people love to talk about gets dated to 1997, when he brought forth the first volume of what the folks in marketing tell us we now have to refer to as The American Trilogy. Which, by the way: yuck. Yet if we ignore Roth’s self-conscious, not to say obsessive-compulsive, curation of his own oeuvre (“Kepesh Books” ; “Roth Books” ; “Nemeses” (?)), the picture is more complicated. Zuckerman Bound (1979-83) is phenomenal; William H. Gass called The Counterlife, from 1986, “a triumph.” According to Leaving a Doll’s House, the tell-all memoir written by his ex-wife Claire Bloom (and published in the U.K., not coincidentally, by Carmen Callil), Roth himself felt his 1993’s Operation Shylock to be his masterpiece. (It’s at least partly his disappointment with Shylock’s reception fueling Mickey Sabbath’s eloquent outrage). If there was any lull in Roth’s powers, it was the six-year period between The Counterlife and Shylock – no longer than the period separating Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. And let us not forget that Sabbath’s Theater won the 1995 National Book Award.
It may be easier for, say, Michiko Kakutani to empathize with American Pastoral‘s Swede Levov than to embrace the rebarbative Mickey Sabbath. But it would have been just as useful to group these two together as to repackage another Zuckerman troika. Levov and Sabbath are obverse sides of the same coin – the same story, approached from different angles. Indeed, Sabbath’s foil Norman Cowan – “that impressive American thing…a nice rich guy with some depth” – looks very much like a sketch for the Swede. Comedy and tragedy, rectitude and blasphemy, responsibility and freedom, love and rage, meaning and meaninglessness and all the extremes that threaten to rip apart American life…”on and on and on about the same subject,” yes, but what a subject! And whereas its formulation in American Pastoral feels like a departure (which, on Carmen Callil’s terms, is a good thing) the savage and profane Sabbath’s Theater – this face-sitting, breath-taking brute – is Roth’s most Roth-y book. Which is to say, his best.
Bonus Link: Sex, Seriously: James Salter Trumps the Great Male Novelists