Review of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

Should Roth’s novels be lumped together with other transgressive works such as Vollmann’s Royal Family or anything by the Marquise de Sade? Most often they are not.

Frequently, they are labeled as masterpieces, or literary fiction of the award-winning variety. Whereas, Vollmann’s far superior novel abovementioned is regarded by some as an eccentric display of scarcely fictionalized, dirty journalism.

Simply stated, about 80% of the content of this novel could be labeled as transgressive. A preoccupation with sexual mores, scatological humor, and phallocentric obsessive-compulsive mania are other descriptive terms I would use. But they are also reductive. It has been hailed as a comic epic. Comic, it is, at times, though also overwhelmingly pessimistic, sad, and impolite in the way desensitized five-year-old boys are impolite. Epic in the sense that Harold and Kumar is epic, if you are in the right mindset.

Roth excels at depicting the resonating effects of grief, betrayal and lust in many instances, but when combined with psychological transparency and fringe narrators with few, if any, redeeming qualities, it becomes necessary to define the novel by other means, lest it be consigned to the merely literal erotica section of the bookstore. Instead, let us consider how this novel, regardless of any other work he might have produced, constitutes a worthy achievement in the realm of satire, representation and the analysis of human beings.

The mental and societal situations alluded to include: madness, sexual frenzy, cartoonish seduction sequences, moving intimacy, grossly inappropriate discussions in the workplace, suggestion of far deeper corruption and crime, grief (of course), incestuous considerations, the pluses and minuses of marriage, the responsibility between lovers, spouses and professors toward those they violate, the purpose and power of art, and more. Overall, the main character represents, in my mind, a product of wish fulfilment, accomplishing in reality what could normally (and so often) only occur in the modern indelicate imagination.

Through a range of literary techniques Roth presents conflicts of varying depth and complexity, but never strays far from his central theme of the satisfaction of desires. Many farcical aspects intrude upon the serious tone it often assumes. Has anyone ever made money performing with finger puppets? Also, the ghost was an interesting way to conduct discussions and deliver character development. The dialogue can be witty, but it verges on shallow when entrenched in the single-track minds of the main characters.

I could go on extolling the great and execrable components of this multifaceted work, but I do not believe it is worth more than a modicum of my time. On to the next Roth book, to see what he can cook up with the same old ingredients.

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