Inquisitor of Irony, August 8, 2012 (view all comments by Inquisitor of Irony)
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.
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This acclaimed novel by Roth is at times brilliant, provocative, entertaining, insightful, and certainly erotic, but it can also be tedious, repetitious, morose, and self-indulgent. Sixty-four-year-old Mickey Sabbath, a Jewish, unemployed arthritic puppeteer, has come to a point where he realizes that his life has been pretty much pointless and wasted. The death of his older brother Mort in WWII some fifty years prior seemed to unmoor him, leading to a life of drifting and marginal enterprises. The one constant in his life is his obsession with women, where his verbal abilities and aggressiveness have served him well. His Indecent Theater act on the streets of NYC with his finger puppeteering was especially effective in attracting intrigued females.
The sudden end of his long standing, highly gratifying relationship with a married Croatian innkeeper and a fellow sexual adventurer Drenka has precipitated a crisis in his life. In the past, he has rebounded from failures with women. He drove his current wife to drink and into rehab and his first wife simply disappeared. But now as Mickey reflects on all of this history, he begins to really struggle with what the future holds for him.
It may not be easy to journey with Mickey on his path of self-analysis; he is not even especially likeable. But for those who can get past the self-indulgent behavior, there is a lot of depth waiting to be plumbed. It might well take a reread to fully appreciate this book.
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Vintage Books USA -
by The New York Times Book Review,
"A great work...Roth's richest, most rewarding novel...funny and profound...as powerful as writing can be."
by New Republic,
"Roth's extraordinary new novel is an astonishment and a scourge, and one of the strangest achievements of fictional prose that I have ever read....It is very exquisite."
Sabbath's Theater is a comic creation of epic proportions, and Mickey Sabbath is its gargantuan hero. Once a scandalously inventive puppeteer, Sabbath at sixty-four is still defiantly antagonistic and exceedingly libidinous. But after the death of his long-time mistress—an erotic free spirit whose adulterous daring surpassed even his own—Sabbath embarks on a turbulent journey into his past. Bereft and grieving, besieged by the ghosts of those who loved and hated him most, he contrives a succession of farcical disasters that take him to the brink of madness and extinction.
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