Reassessing an odd work of fiction, because I need a break from the mainstream media’s “facts”:
Novels and movies about ghosts and ghoulies are supposed to be scary but rarely are. If you want to enjoy a Halloween story that will chill you to the bone, read the National Book Award-winning Sabbath’s Theater (1995), by Philip Roth, master of morbid hyper-realism.
Just kidding. Sabbath’s Theater has nothing to do with Halloween, but read it anyway. Even if you don’t enjoy the novel, you’ll have to admire the author’s knack for brutally funny self-analysis and dark spiritual insights.
Or maybe not. Here’s Roth, from the point of view of his aging protagonist Mickey Sabbath, expressing what a dark-minded motorist might feel while approaching a dreaded destination. This could be me a few years ago, on my way to a new temp job in a suburban office park:
The drive was interminable. Had he missed a turn or was this itself the next abode: a coffin that you endlessly steer through the placeless darkness, recounting and recounting the uncontrollable events that induced you to become someone unforeseen. And so fast! So quickly! Everything runs away, beginning with who you are, and at some indefinable point you come to half-understand that the ruthless antagonist is yourself.
Sabbath has turned his wife into a basket case and lost his home in the process. He has rejected old friends and abandoned his artistic goals. He’s his own worst enemy. My hunch is that the misanthropic Roth, in creating the misanthropic Sabbath, set out to present the most unattractive version of himself he could imagine, to see if he could somehow make him a sympathetic character.
You be the judge. I’ll say only that the book should have come with a warning label: “Think twice about reading this if you are more than 50 years old, poor and/or battling suicidal depression; inclined to react violently to misogynistic or racist rants; actively or latently anti-Semitic; averse to politically incorrect ideas; incapable of appreciating irony; offended by nostalgia for the World War II era, mockery of Alcoholics Anonymous, blasphemous interpretations of Biblical passages, or unusual sexual situations, including ritual masturbation in a graveyard.”
Footnote: Sabbath’s Theater deserved critical acclaim back in the day, but it may have gotten too much of it. Check out James Wolcott’s hilarious put-down of Roth’s “horny geezer with a white beard.”