Within the order of capitalism, the greatest transgression, the most subversive obscenity, is voluntary failure. To be a Bartleby who lives. To choose failure, even unconsciously (the way most of us choose most of our lives), to choose it because success is no challenge, is too boringly simple, the conformist path of least resistance that camouflages itself as achievement--this may be the most subversive and unassimilable of choices in our society. And it's why the supremely unsettling Mickey Sabbath, not the relative everyman (or everywanker, the same thing) Alexander Portnoy, is Philip Roth's most transgressive creation by far. Even the fucker's name is outrageous. Abomination! Profanation! A walking obscenity named Sabbath! Remember him and keep him holy.
Yes, I'm reading Sabbath's Theater for the second time and finding it an even better, deeper book, a rare achievement. It's not Roth's most perfect novel (that would be The Ghost Writer), but it's up there with Portnoy's Complaint and The Counterlife among his very greatest works. And as I wrote that last sentence I remembered that I was only able to read this book the first time after two or three false starts in which I abandoned the story after the first chapter. This is a testimony not to the book's difficulty but to its power. It's not a hard book, but it is hardcore; it's strong medicine--exactly the dosage we need today.
Upon finishing this second reading, I'm deeply impressed and convinced that this book is one of the Great American Novels, better than any of the books in Roth's so-called 'American trilogy' (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain) and probably tying Lolita as the most fearlessly subversive G.A.N. It's an amazing, abominable book, big and reckless and blustering and beautiful, like much of the best American art. It's so hilariously and consistently outrageous that I find myself simultaneously laughing and shaking my head in disbelief at something on practically every page. This is one of those books that, except for a few pages here and there, simply does not give up. It's the most deliciously dirty novel ever written by an American--the kind of book Henry Miller might have written, given more talent and intellect. If there's a smarter, funnier, better written and more subversive (and self-subversive) book about the labyrinths of sexuality, I'd like to read it. Sabbath's Theater is one of those books that makes it hard (Stop the sentence there. Sabbath would.) not to gush.
Think back to the publication year. 1995. This novel was a 451-page incendiary device hurled in the face of P.C. America. And one of the things I admire most about the book is its fearlessness. It's so outrageous, so trangressive, so constantly a go-for-broke gambit, that I doubt if anyone other than a living legend like P. Roth could've gotten it published. It's a no fear, no censorship, no second-guessing performance--or at least that's the impression carefully created by Roth's craft. There's a definite feeling here of writing without a net, sitting down in front of the page and cutting loose. And like all truly great novels this one causes another feeling to rise up in sensitive readers, a sensation of the work's greatness that one seems to feel in the Nabokovian 'solar plexus' before any interpretation or analysis come into consciousness. I know this sounds half-baked. But dammit, when I'm reading a great novel or looking at a great painting, I can feel its greatness in my guts. We can feel the greatness of a work before we begin to understand it (this is probably more common with visual than literary artworks), and that feeling is our interpretive goad (I typed 'goat' first, a marvelously Freudian slip of the finger: the interpretive goat, the hermeneutic herm, with overtones of the archaic Greek 'goat song,' the root of tragedy). What an appallingly good book this is, so joyously filthy and so goddamn fearless and wise--yes, wise--about aspects of sex, death and relationships that most people prefer not to contemplate. And of course there's the prose: Roth goes full-throttle from page 1 to 451 with only a few brief downshifts. This is low comedy as high art. Joyce and Chaucer are not far away, nor is Petronius. If I were to make a list of the greatest literary filth, a canon of high porn, it would include: The Satyricon; Boccaccio at his bawdy best; Rochester's erotic poems; Cleland's Fanny Hill; Constance Chatterley and her constantly chatty gamekeeper; Nabokov's Confessions of a White Widowed Male; Portnoy and Sabbath, Erica Jong's first three novels; a book or two by Samuel Delany; White's The Beautiful Room is Empty; pretty much anything by Genet. Hell, I suppose I could even include that ultra-prolix bore who bore the title Marquis de Sade. J.G. Ballard's Crash would be there too. Naked Lunch, obviously. Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet goes in, along with Miller and Nin... Basta! More than Basta! Basta la vista, ba-by...
The best erotic writers, like Roth and unlike mirthless Herb Lawrence, know that sex is seriously funny. It's the subversive, disruptive, anarchic, Marx Brothers side of human beings. Yes, sex is Harpo, Chico, Groucho and even pretty boy Zeppo banging away at each other while Gummo films it. Now I'm thinking like Mickey Sabbath, and that didn't work out so well for him. I'm beginning to understand why after writing Sabbath's Theater Roth felt a need to get away from this character, to get Sabbath out of his head. There's a reason why no one can endure Sabbath: being unendurable is his goal and vocation, to insult life as much as life has insulted him, to insult it even more--this is his insufferable indecency.