2008: 91. Sabbath’s Theater

“Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.”

Sabbath’s Theater, Philip Roth

Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? I can’t help but feel that I have a little bit of that problems when it comes to Roth.  I keep buying his books (mostly used, but still), and reading them, and not liking them.  The problem is that I really enjoyed his American trilogy - American Pastoral, So I Married A Communist, and (really really) The Human Stain.  And so I forget that I don’t see the humor in Portnoy’s Complaint (or rather, I understand intellectually why people find it funny, I just don’t personally find it so), and didn’t really like Goodbye Columbus or Letting Go.  And so I keep reading Roth. 


All of which is a long introduction to say that I loathed Sabbath’s Theater.  It did nothing for me at all, and long stretches repulsed me. The book won the National Book award, and Harold Bloom calls it a masterwork, but I had to force myself to finish it. 


First, the plot.  Mickey Sabbath is an ancient puppeteer, living out his life in rural Vermont.  He’s basically a failure, done in by his own appetites (an affair with a young student lost him his job at the local college, his marriage is a failure, etc.).  After his long time lover , Drenka, (i.e. the woman he has been having tons of adulterous sex with for years) dies of cancer, Sabbath becomes even further unhinged from his life - leaving his wife, going on a trip to New York to visit old friends, all while trying to decide whether he should just commit suicide, as urged by the ghost of his mother.*


O.K, so this supposed to be one of the greatest novels of the past twenty-five years and I hated it.  I hated Sabbath himself, and felt no sympathy for his situations.  I would understand if he was supposed to be an anti-hero, but I couldn’t help feeling that Roth loved Sabbath - even as he was portraying him as pathetic, he still thought of him as this heroic figure - a Falstaff for our times.  When in reality all this book is about is Sabbath having sex, pardon me, fucking, as nastily and meaninglessly as possible, as if that makes him some kind of hero.  And the text is so misogynistic that I am left thinking that Roth may actually hate women.  Every single female in the book is nothing but a sex toy to Sabbath (the positive reviews refer this as Sabbath playing them like the puppet master he is), and the way they are treated and referred to is nothing short of repulsive, from his first wife (who disappeard) to his current wife (an estranged alcoholic wife), to the daughter of his friend (whose possessions he raids when staying in her room and masterbates with).  


Look - Roth is clearly one of the great writers.  He can turn a phrase.  But I hated, hated, this book.  I get it, Phil.  You like sex and think its shocking to write about it.  Maybe it’s generational, but to me, it seems like Roth is stuck in the past, and trying to punish the women who didn’t give him what he wanted.  It’s the kind of book that men who don’t really like women think is profound.


* And for what it’s worth, the little old Jewish lady as a vengeful ghost seems to me to be stolen from Ethel Rosenberg in Angels In America.


Date/Place Completed: 6/17/08; D.C.

Categories: Fiction, Commuting Book


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© Carrie Dunsmore 2017