Kevin Zambrano (Fiction Editor) is reading Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth.
Right now I’m about 150 pages into Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth. I’d never read a Roth novel before, so I picked the one about a sexually deviant puppeteer. Despite this premise, and despite what I’d already read in praise, what’s most noticeable as I’m reading is a very simple pleasure; the book makes me laugh often. I appreciate its particular brand of humor, and its language is playful but never less than ambitious. Indeed, the great writing adds artfulness and purpose to what otherwise could have been unpalatable. Sabbath’s story is a voyage to the limits of what we consider good taste, captained by Mickey Sabbath, a disgraced puppeteer “who could’ve been inside Big Bird all these years,” and who surely ranks among the most depraved literary protagonists of the American 20th century. Many great novels are considered great because the prose embodies and reflects the character’s qualities, and Sabbath’s Theater comes from this tradition. Sabbath is relentlessly present in the sentences. I could see some readers being repelled by Sabbath’s debased voice and degenerate behavior, probably to the point where the novel’s form and style become irrelevant. And for others, the writing style itself may seem too extreme, as if subtlety were a god we should avoid offending. For me, I’m quite enjoying the novel, and finding that behind all the brilliant humor is something darkly profound, as Mickey Sabbath faces the emptiness of life and death. I look forward to reading about what happens to him.