Micky Sabbath wants to die…
After losing his beloved mistress to cancer, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre finds himself begging for the kindness of old friends when his wife, a newly recovered alcoholic, banishes him from her life and home. Alone in the world, Sabbath wanders aimlessly through the winding back-alleys of his past as he engenders his own demise in the present.
In this ageing, once gorgeous puppeteer with hands so arthritic he is no longer able to perform, Roth has created the ultimate antihero. Womanising, philandering and serial adultery are the bases of this book, and the bases on which Micky Sabbath rests his soul; however, it is hard to dislike a character whose roguish exterior so transparently fronts a world of inner turmoil. And it is this turmoil that turns a book with no sensational storyline into one of the most fascinating, gripping and frank fictional explorations of human sexuality, and the discord it strikes with modern morality. Partially told as snippets of past events, and partially from the modern world Micky finds himself inhabiting, I found that it often went unnoticed when one section of his reality ended and the next stream of consciousness began; and just as often, I was jolted from one of Micky’s daydreams to find myself plunged back into his harsh current life. These non-linear expositions appear, at first, to arrive in Micky’s mind unbidden; however, each dive into the past serves to further elucidate his present conundrum, and adds layer upon layer to the already complex character that is Micky’s Sabbath. Each memory offers an understanding of the position in which he now finds himself, and, with each, our protagonist develops into something so tangibly human.
Perhaps one of the most explicit examples of cause and effect can be found in the section of the book where the physical arrangement of paragraphs lends itself as much to the non-sequential message as the message itself. In this segment, the pages are split in two, with the top half running through the decline of Micky’s second wife, Roseanna, into alcoholism, and the bottom half depicting what, at first, appears to be simply a sexually explicit telephone conversation between Micky and a young woman. As the chapter progresses, it becomes acutely obvious that the top half is driven by the bottom, and the events of the top story cause a sense of trepidation as the lower story unfolds.
Addressing the crude human drive for sexuality is what Roth is best known for, and there is no shortage of sex in this book. However, rather than erotic, these scenes rather clinically highlight the ridiculous; somehow creating a familiar feeling akin to that of la petit mort, without ever giving us the satisfaction of the initial guilty pleasure. It serves as a reminder that we are reading of a man who has allowed his absurd animal desire for sexual gratification to become his downfall. In this way, we are invited to see and understand his appetites, but not to partake in them. That is not to say that Roth has no aptitude for erotica: arguably the most arousing scene in the book sees Roseanna, alone in her home, free from alcohol, free from the shackles of her bad marriage, masturbating in her living room. She has not escaped the base cravings, but she controls them, and Micky can only look on from the outside.
This novel is page after poignant page of Micky’s need and inability to kill himself. He feels the ghost of his dead mother, floating above him, watching and judging his every depraved act. He so cherished this woman who caused in him his incurable self-loathing by having him always play second fiddle to his older brother, even after his brother is killed in the war, a shock from which neither Micky nor his mother ever recover. Time and again, he teeters on the brink of suicide, only to find another insignificant and finite reason to live for just that moment, which, once past, leaves him all the more wretched. Perhaps the most piteous thing is that Micky seems destined to live after all.
As devilishly humourous as it is dark, Sabbath’s Theatre managed to put me into a trance-like state, only for me to return to the here and now, dazed, with engulfing thoughts whizzing around my head in swarms. Despite its general unpopularity among women, I was only able to see in Sabbath’s Theatre a man who loves women; loves and respects them enough to not patronisingly load every sexual experience with meaning. That said, to be offended by a character so exquisitely written, so well rounded and believable, on the grounds of his breaking some inner moral code seems to me illogical anyway, even if… no, especially if the character is so contemptible as to have the ability to enrage. After all, is that not just good writing? This book is far from offensive; it is grotesquely beautiful and searingly honest, and to deny its impact would be unjustifiable.
Delta of Venus ~ Anaïs Nin
Civilisation and its Discontents ~ Sigmund Freud