Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater

Sabbath's TheaterRoth has a talent for provocation, amply testified to in his superb and uproarious Portnoy’s Complaint, and honed to devastating effect in Sabbath’s Theater. First, in the interests of intellectual honesty, a caveat: I abhor those critics who cannot honestly confront a work of art without foisting their own standards of morality and decency upon it. Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s much-lauded Girls, has been criticized for a lack of cultural and racial diversity; Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men for failing to address or give due weight to the Civil Rights Movement. Ignoring the obvious objection that both these shows are works in progress, and that criticizing them for omitting content at this stage is akin to criticizing a book without having finished it, it is my belief that the artist’s prerogative is sacrosanct, and that any criticism that fails to address itself to this prerogative is dishonest. The necessity of this aside should be obvious to anyone familiar with Roth’s work, which delights in trampling over norms of decency and propriety and wresting guilty laughter out of readers, who are as apt to blush if caught holding one of his bawdier works as if it were a Playboy in their hands.

Whatever Roth’s personal failings (the subject of much tabloid gossip, particularly in the wake of the publication of his ex-wife’s memoirs), he heard the loud outcry of those upset with his sexually licentious characters and allegedly misogynistic portrayals of women, took them deeply to heart and then went off and wrote Sabbath’s Theater, a big ‘fuck you’ to anyone who would presume to dictate terms to him. The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Mickey Sabbath, is the kind of man whose existence we cringe to acknowledge, an ex-puppeteer whose career was tragically cut short by crippling arthritis of the fingers, which he curses less for its impact on his finances than on his love life, and who commits the cultural sin of not disguising the fact that he has not outlived his sex drive. Mickey is unlikeable, even odious, but he’s also oddly sympathetic. Alone in the world, estranged from his wife and with a dead mistress whose grave he defiles out of some perverse combination of grief and communion, he alienates all those who reach out to him in friendship and spends the better part of the novel plotting his own demise, urged on by a vision of his mother’s ghost.

Stripped of his wife and lover, friends and family, and, perhaps most devastatingly, his sexual potency, Mickey must find some means to exist in a world in which he so clearly does not belong – worse, in a world that so clearly does not want him – and the joke he ultimately plays, his final act of defiance, is to continue his existence not out of love but out of spite: like Roth, whose every novel is a thorn in the side of his detractors (one of the three judges charged with awarding the Booker prize resigned in protest upon his ultimately being declared the winner), Mickey forces others to share in his suffering.