/ I do not read anymore <what?> I do not read / There is no respite from the chaos of my thinking <Guyotat> I will write it as I hear it, not as I read it / I do not read / There is no more anymore <so?> What do you want me to say? <the violence and sex?> / I’ll say it, not as I read it, but as you wish <ok> This is how we will proceed from now on / There is no respite from the chaos / This is not a game, like it once was <This is not fun?> No, this is where the once ever thinning thread ends <it was oppressive?> The thinning? <the book> The book did not oppress me / I did not read it / I sat and stared amidst the chaos of my thinking / Show me the page <what now?> Nothing / I see the words, without reading / My eyes are a door that opens only one way <this is stupid> Semen, stretched arseholes, and blood <and what?> That’s all / We are done <there must be something else?> No, but I will say whatever you wish me to say / This is how we will proceed from now on <page after page of sex and violence> Rape and murder <comment> It is what it is <it did not disgust you?> I did not read it <it did not shock you?> I am done with that <and where do you go from here?> You go nowhere / You stop / And sit and stare amidst the chaos of your thinking <but war> Yes <comment> Once I would have said: give man freedom and power over others and he will do atrocious things <and now?> Man no longer needs a war to give himself an opportunity to indulge <what does that mean?> We are in the midst of a collapse <oh?> The collective knees are buckling <the sex?> What about it? There is no sex, only dirty fingernails and repetition <you can smell it> Please <on the page> Please, lift your eyes and look around you / This is childish / We ought to try harder <this is what you do> You mistake me for someone else <you have done this for years> It is what I did <and now?> Nothing / I do not read <you sit and stare amidst the chaos of your thinking> Yes, while you dream about semen, stretched arseholes and blood <Guyotat> Of course <comment> The desert / Stretched open spaces <in which to hide his obscenities?> If you wish <this is not enjoyable?> No <you enjoyed this once> I hid in my own desert, where I aped and played / Under the weight of the world my eyes fell upon the page <de Sade> Please <pornography> Please / For as long as I could remember my heart had made a sound like the click of fingernail against fingernail <and now?> It has stopped / And all I am left with is the chaos of my thinking <he meets the misery of the world head-on> Who? <Guyotat> You are mistaken <how so?> To live is to meet the misery of the world head-on, not to write about it, nor read about it <it’s gripping, hypnotic> As you wish <you don’t agree?> I cannot agree nor disagree <because you did not read the book?> I did not, and I will not / I am done / Reading is noise / It is a drone that drowns out the scuttling of your own mind <so there is nothing left to say?> There was never anything to say /
Since becoming aware of its existence I had earmarked Alain Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel to be the last book I wrote about, and perhaps the last book I read. It seemed to me to be the perfect way to go out, to give up the activities that I so often find joyless and detrimental to my mental health. As is typical, I did not want to take my leave gracefully, but, rather, with a big fuck you to books, to writing, and to my old self. Indeed, that is how I understood the purpose of A Sentimental Novel, prior to reading it. It was written when Robbe-Grillet was in his eighties, and was published, in 2007, a year before his death. It was, therefore, the work of a man who must have known he was reaching the end of his life. This, he may very well have decided, would be his concluding statement, his last word to the world; and, as such, I saw in its promised unpleasantness, and disregard for the well-being of its reader, a stiff middle finger. But I was wrong.
“He contemplates her for an instant, motionless, in waiting, at his feet, and pays her a sophisticated compliment on her pose as a well-trained maid and on her flattering and intimate turnout as an underage courtesan, without failing to make mention, in ceremonious terms, of the numerous bright pink, distinct, artfully crisscross marks that decorate her ass.”
A Sentimental Novel centres on the relationship between a fifteen year old, ‘barely pubescent’ girl and a man who is said to be her father. In the early stages – even taking into account the suggested incest and the underage sex – what it serves up is a fairly tame and predictable account of sadomasochism. The ‘authoritarian’ master and the ‘docile’ pupil engage in a training regime, involving corporal punishment [whipping her backside – for wrongdoings or simply when he feels like it], enforced reading of pornographic material, serving him drinks, etc. She is the ‘lovely schoolgirl’, the ‘underage courtesan’, and he is her ‘inflexible director of conscience and libido.’ It is, let’s be honest, the sort of role-play consenting adults take part in every day, for their mutual enjoyment. In doing so, they are not, at least in most cases, condoning paedophilia, and nor does pornography that depicts similar situations and scenarios. It is simply the case that one of the functions of erotica is to flesh out, give voice to, fantasies many people feel uncomfortable about giving voice to themselves.
Moreover, there are numerous, not-so-subtle, hints that what one is reading is not really happening. It is easy to forget, as the atrocities pile up, that the story is actually being narrated by a man, a man who, on the first page, wakes to find himself in a white room. He does not know how he got there, and wonders whether he was ‘perhaps driven here by force, against my will, in spite of myself even.’ He also wonders whether he is in prison, or whether he is dead. Therefore, the action of the novel, the extreme unpleasantness contained within it, may be, or most likely is, a figment of his imagination. Certainly, it is not possible that the girl and her father are in the room with him, nor that he can see them through a window or door, as he claims there are none. Indeed, the girl, and by extension the story, appears to emerge from a painting that the man is looking at. It is also worth noting that one of the girl’s names is Djinn, which means genie, suggesting, again, that this is all fantasy.
In any case, I do not believe that the exploring of forbidden, if common, fantasies, nor the sexual gratification of his readers, was Robbe-Grillet’s aim. In fact, far from being a dirty and immoral book, I would argue that one of its principle themes is indoctrination and the harmful effects of what people are exposed to, including pornography. The young girl – who, as noted, has several names, but is mostly called Gigi – is groomed to be her father’s sex slave, is made a willing participant, by virtue of a systematic normalising of the behaviour and acts that please him. She lives, for example, in a house that is essentially a brothel, one that is equipped with torture chambers. She knows no other world. There are, moreover, pictures on the walls showing young girls being tortured; and, as previously noted, she is made to read from texts featuring abuse and torture, and listen to her father’s own anecdotes on the subject. She is even given alcohol and drugs in order to make her pliable.
As a consequence of her training, Gigi is the only character in the book who goes on a kind of journey, who evolves, only it is not for the better, it is not towards enlightenment. There is, for her, a pivotal moment in the text when a doll, by which we mean another young girl who has been trained to be submissive, is brought into the house. Some of the abuses Odile has been subjected to are recounted, and Gigi is said to understand that she must ‘not show the tenderness she feels’ for her. She has learnt, therefore, that sympathy or compassion, for example, is unacceptable, and is also aware of her own precarious position in the house i.e. that it is possible that if she displeases her master she may actually find herself in Odile’s position, or worse. Yet, this is the last vestige of humanity one glimpses in her. Once Odile is given to her as a present, Gigi becomes increasingly her father’s daughter.
There is so much in this that one could discuss, not least the idea, which I have expressed myself on numerous occasions, that if you give someone complete freedom over another to do as they please they will invariably do something harmful. However, in terms of this review, what I am most interested in is Gigi’s transformation from slave to master by way of her education. The most persuasive evidence of this is that upon discovery of the pictures of her mother being tortured, Gigi fantasises about Odile being strung up in the same way. She is not pretending out of fear, she has come to find sexual enjoyment in the pain and suffering of others through relentless exposure to it. There are, of course, those who claim that we do not learn in this way, that, to use an analogy, violent computer games cannot create violent people, but I disagree. I do not believe that exposure to unpleasant things has the same effect upon everyone, but I do think that human beings are incredibly suggestible, and our preferences, especially our sexual preferences, are fluid and malleable and are often directly related to our experiences, especially those early in life.
It is significant that there is not a single act of aggression or abuse perpetrated against a male in the novel, significant because this too is, for me, one of Robbe-Grillet’s principle preoccupations. Throughout, he repeatedly highlights the cultural and historical persecution and torture of women. He references the martyrdom of Sankt Giesela, the ‘sacrifices listed in the works of Apuleius, Tertullian, and Juvenal’, the rape and murder of women in religious paintings, the burning and disfigurement of concubines who displeased the emperor of the Tang dynasty with their ‘nocturnal activities’, etc. He also notes that girls from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, amongst other places, who have escaped ill-treatment in their home countries, often find themselves sold into sex slavery. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet himself points out that sinners made to perish in front of witnesses are very seldom men, and are most often girls, not mature women. This he puts down to being a consequence of the power being held by men, of, therefore, patriarchy.
None of that is particularly profound, or insightful, but it is certainly at odds with the common perception of A Sentimental Novel as the outpourings of a dirty old modernist. As with Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden, Robbe-Grillet appears to be making a comment about humanity-at-large, and our well-documented, natural but lamentable, sadistic and masochistic impulses, impulses that, at least in the case of sadism, we go to great lengths these days to hide. However, I cannot conclude this review without reiterating just how disturbing some of the content of the book is, regardless of, in my opinion, the author’s philosophically and morally sound intentions. There is no getting away from the fact that there are parts of it that are fucking horrible, near unreadable. In fact, I didn’t finish it. I reached breaking point at page eighty-eight, which describes a mother and her baby being raped and dismembered and eaten. So, while A Sentimental Novel is not pornography, and it is not a final fuck you, you might say that it is a test of one’s nerve. How far can you get? How many pages can you stomach?
Until recently I didn’t think that I was boring in bed. Or that I lacked imagination and a willingness to experiment. I have my preferences, yes, but I liked to believe that I was fairly open minded. However, when I started speaking to more and more people about sex, women mostly, I was shocked to discover that many acts that were not on my sexual radar [although I was aware of them, of course] were common fantasies and, it seems, were regularly being performed. Slapping and choking, for example. Oh, and fuck machines. ‘I want you to strap me into a dildo machine and watch as it fucks me.’ Seriously? I have to buy a machine now? Where does one get such a thing? And where on earth do we go after that? If this is the opening bid, so to speak, what exactly are we working up to here? Clearly, I had misjudged myself for many years. I am an amateur. A dabbler. Slipping between the sheets with me is like being asked to eat a raw potato.
On this basis, one might imagine that Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye – which, amongst other things, features gallons of piss, a fair amount of necrophilia, and the insertion of a human eyeball into a teenage girl’s anus – would not particularly appeal to me. Yet I have read it twice now; and, while almost all of the erotic content is at odds with my own desires, I could not have enjoyed it more. Indeed, I found it so engrossing the second time around that, against my better judgement, I took the book to work with me, so that I could continue reading it during my breaks. Thankfully, none of my colleagues felt compelled to ask me what exactly it was about the thin volume in my hands that inspired such a gleeful expression on my face. Had they done so I was prepared to lie, of course. It’s about an eye, ok? Now fuck off, and leave me in peace. Which, now I come to think about it, wouldn’t have been lie at all. It is about an eye.
Putting that eye business aside for a while, the book charts the relationship between the unnamed narrator and Simone, with each chapter focussing on one of their outré sexual escapades. It is, I believe, necessary to highlight the age of the couple. They are teenagers, young teenagers, being fifteen approaching sixteen when the novel begins. They are not adults, nor even close to being adults, and there is a definite sense of immaturity and playfulness, even innocence, about much of what they engage in. For example, the scene in which Simone cools her genitals in a saucer of milk, while punning upon the word ‘pussy’, is almost charming in its juvenile silliness. Moreover, this sort of thing isn’t confined to sex. The pair embark on a number of childish adventures, including trying to free one of their friends – Marcelle – from a sanatorium using a nail file.
So, on one level one could understand the book as being about adolescence, the discovery of one’s own body and the bodies of others, teenage sexual awakening, and so on. Indeed, there is a definite distinction drawn between the attitudes and behaviours of the youngsters and that of adults. When, for example, the narrator and Simone, and a group of their friends, stage an orgy it is broken up by their parents, who, as one would expect, react with dismay, with ‘desperate shrieks’ and ‘exaggerated threats.’ It is telling, moreover, that the children – with the exception of the central couple – break down, begin ‘howling and sobbing in a delirium of tearful screams.’ The adults in the book are at times the enemy – in one scene an unidentified figure literally pulls Marcelle away from a window while she masturbates – intent on spoiling their enjoyment or are figures of fun. On this latter point, consider how Simone’s timid mother is accidentally pissed on by her daughter, and how a priest is mocked, then murdered.
Yet I think there is more to Story of the Eye than an exploration of the generational gap. The narrator and Simone do certainly reject the adult world, but what is most significant about this is what that world represents, which is ‘normality’ and the conventional. Throughout the novel, the couple are intent on pushing the boundaries, on taking ‘any opportunity to indulge in unusual acts.’ Indeed, one of the most revealing moments is when the narrator attempts to take Simone in her bed and she refuses, because she does not want to be fucked ‘like a housewife or mother.’ Moreover, until close to the end of the novel Simone remains a vaginal virgin; prior to this point, and after it in truth, much of the couple’s sexual activity involves eggs, piss, come facials, and public – mutual and solo – masturbation.
There is, therefore, a deliberate avoidance of what might be considered normal or conventional sex. One gets the sense that pleasure is not the true aim, or that it is but that the pleasure is derived not directly from the flesh but from the extent to which these acts would be considered unnatural or inappropriate. It is interesting, in this regard, that there is only one moment, that I can recall, where the narrator is made to feel uncomfortable, when he refuses to allow or participate in an act, suggesting of course that he believes it would be ‘going too far.’ This is when Simone wants to sit on the testicles of a freshly killed bull while in public. One has to wonder why this particular act was deemed unacceptable by him, but helping a girl to fuck a dead priest, and to fuck her himself while she has the priest’s eye up her ass, is fair game.
“In general, people savor the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid. But as of then, no doubt existed for me: I did not care for what is known as “pleasures of the flesh” because they really are insipid; I cared only for what is classified as “dirty.” On the other hand, I was not even satisfied with the usual debauchery, because the only thing it dirties is debauchery itself, while, in some way or other, anything sublime and perfectly pure is left intact by it.”
With this in mind, perhaps the most important character is Marcelle; certainly she is most important to the narrator and Simone, dominating their thoughts and playing a central role in their relationship. She has, we’re told, a ‘childlike simplicity’; she is shy and reluctant to get involved in her friend’s debauched behaviour. Indeed, her introduction into the novel involves them overpowering and raping her. She is, therefore, obviously representative of purity or innocence. This is made especially clear by virtue of her blonde hair, her white underwear [in contrast to Simone’s black], and the way that she is locked up in a sanatorium like a kind of fairytale princess in her tower.
However, she also represents repression and ‘naive’ piety. When, for example, she finds herself becoming turned on during the aforementioned orgy, she hides in a wardrobe in order to masturbate in private. Upon her ‘release’ [in both senses of the word] she imagines that the narrator is a Cardinal. Guilt, shame, and the way that the Catholic religion indoctrinates its followers into feeling these emotions, are all targets of disdain for the couple. Therefore, the death of the priest at the end of the novel is explained, I believe, in relation to Marcelle. He is, one might argue, killed for her. This interpretation is given greater authority when, after desecrating the church – both by copulating in there and by disposing of Don Aminado – the narrator sees Marcelle inside Simone’s vagina ‘gazing at me through tears of urine.’
I hinted towards the beginning of this review that I would return to the eye. It is necessary, of course. The novel is called Story of the Eye after all. Yet I am not sure how to fully account for its prominence, both for Bataille and in the most shocking act the couple perform, although there are certain ideas that suggest themselves to me. The eye is said to be a window to the soul, for example, and this is a book that concerns itself, as noted, with morality and religion. The eye could also be said to be the instrument by which we judge others, and it is perhaps significant, therefore, that Simone has one shoved up her ass. What is clear, in any case, is that, as with much that we encounter, it has a sexual-symbolic function. It is round and white, like a testicle, like an egg. All of these objects are connected in the mind of the author and in those of the teenage couple. You see the same thing with piss, milk, sperm, rain. The narrator himself describes the Milky Way as ‘astral sperm’; and a bullfight as like coitus. The purpose of this is, I’d argue, to emphasise that bodily fluids, smells, tastes, etc are natural, as natural as a thunderstorm, for example; and that, for such an obscene book, is a positive, liberating message.
I think I have mentioned before that I once made an ex-girlfriend of mine turn off The Killer Inside Me. It may seem overly squeamish to some, or overly touchy, and I do appear to be in a minority with this, but I have absolutely no desire to watch a woman being beaten to death. I grew up around that stuff; I don’t want to see it re-enacted for my entertainment. I get nothing out of it; I worry about the people who do. Genuinely, I do. I once had a discussion with a friend of mine about why he watches so many torture porn movies [by which I mean things like Hostel, The Human Centipede etc]. I said to him that what he is seeing must involve some level of enjoyment or pleasure, and he denied that. Yet, it is obvious to me. If someone voluntarily holds their hand over a hot stove one would have to assume that they are enjoying the experience [or that they are mad], because if they were not enjoying it they would remove their hand. Likewise, there must be some accompanying pleasure for my friend when watching brutal, violent films, otherwise he would turn them off.
Anyway, bearing in mind that there is no pleasure involved for me in all that [and I am not, as far as I am aware, mad], it was perhaps a silly idea to put on William Friedkin’s Killer Joe. I was aware, after having glanced at a few reviews, that the film is meant to be violent and grim, that it involved a redneck [I hate that term, but, with the characterisation being especially unsubtle, it is appropriate] family who arrange for a hitman to take out their mother, and being unable to pay him use the young daughter/sister as collateral; and I was also aware that there was one scene in particular that ‘shocked’ critics and audiences, so I ought to have known better. The thing is, I love the Southern American accent; I could listen to it for hours. I am, then, drawn to anything that is set, like Killer Joe is, in Texas. I also, at least partly for the accent, have some kind of weird borderline homoerotic crush on Matthew McConaughey, the star of the film. So, basically, I could not resist.
And I didn’t entirely regret my decision. McConaughey is, as he always seems to be when I catch him in something, brilliant; again, maybe it is just the accent, but I find him, and found him here, enthrallingly charismatic. He brings a kind of evil, yet irresistible charm to Joe that means that the film, despite its many, serious flaws, is [almost] always watchable. It is occasionally funny too; laugh out loud funny, in fact. There is one scene, which was my favourite, where Joe is conversing for the first time with Dotty, the young girl who he claims as payment for his services. Dotty asks him about his job as a detective and, I think, the worst thing he has seen. Joe then tells her a story about a man who, to get back at his partner, set his genitals on fire. Was he ok? Dotty asks; and Joe replies, in a wonderfully deadpan manner, No Dotty, he set his genitals on fire. I chuckled for a good thirty seconds over that.
As well as good casting, and some noteworthy performances [Gina Gershon does the best with what she was given and Juno Temple is, miraculously, kooky without being overly irritating], the direction is smart too. I’m a big, uh, fan of The Exorcist and one of the reasons for that is Friedkin’s inventiveness as a director, and he brings that same quality to parts of Killer Joe. I thought some of scenes were particularly eye-catching, especially the moment that Chris comes face to, er, bush with his naked-from-the-waist-down stepmother. Then, as Chris enters the house, she turns around and there are bruises on her arse. I thought that whole scene, without having to vocalise it, communicated more about the nature of the family than anything related in the plot.
Unfortunately, one of the principle problems with Killer Joe is that the rest of the film lacks that kind of subtlety, particularly in regards to the central family. I am not American, I am not from Texas, and yet I find the insistence on portraying Texans et al as no-good rednecks tiresome, predictable, and borderline offensive. Killer Joe doesn’t miss a trick; there’s pretty much the full set: the dumb, permanently beer-swilling father, the hoodlum brother, the simple-minded sister and the slutty mother-in-law who wears too much make-up. Indeed, I watched the film all the time expecting, waiting for, one of either the father or brother to show an inappropriate interest in Dotty. That doesn’t happen, but incest is about the only hick stereotype the writer[s] failed to conjure up. Maybe it is just me, but I find it hard to appreciate a film whose plot I could have devised and script I could have written myself in about twenty minutes while simultaneously picking my toenails.
The lazy characterisation of the family isn’t the only issue either; as the film progresses the flaws begin to mount up. For example, the brother readily agrees to Dotty being used as a retainer by Joe when the idea is broached. Yet, later in the film we are meant to buy that he loves his sister so much that he can’t bear to allow the situation to continue. So, like, what? Are a couple of fucks ok, but long term it’s a big no-no? What kind of ethics are those? It just made no sense. The twist, the double-cross, is thoroughly meh too. It’s as though the mental energies of all involved in the script went into the retainer idea [and it’s a good idea, at least] and everything else was tossed off with a shrug and a yawn.
And so I come to the biggest concern. No review of this film could fail to mention the fried chicken scene. It is so odd and so disturbing that I decided to actually post the scene itself, so that if you haven’t seen it you can make up your own mind. Here it is:
Now, this scene is, as far as I am concerned, pornography and that has no place in conventional cinemas. Of course, it’s a drumstick and not a cock, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be pornography. A quick google search threw up this definition:
printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.
I would certainly argue that a woman simulating oral sex while sucking on a drumstick is sexual activity, and that the intention was to get people off. I absolutely believe that. There is no other worthwhile explanation. Oh look, I am sure some would claim that it is meant to be funny or whatever, but I don’t buy that. A woman being abused is not funny. Ever. Fuck that shit. Hang your head if that is your take on it. I also do not accept that it is meant to say something about Joe’s character, as though the audience has somehow managed to arrive at the conclusion of the film not knowing that he is a weird, violent, sadistic bastard. No, the only reason that the scene is in the film is to arouse you. Killer Joe, rightly or wrongly, thinks you’re the kind of person who might get off on this stuff.
But even if that was not the case, even if you could convince me that the scene has some other purpose, that would not make it ok. Not for me, not by a long shot. It would still be an excruciatingly long and drawn-out portrayal of sexual humiliation. I’m of the opinion that something like that is never justified, not in any film and not for any reason.
I am sure that most of you are aware that over the last couple of days a bunch of celebrities have had their computers and mobile phones hacked, and the naughty pictures found on these devices have been leaked to the general public. Rather hilariously, in my opinion, this leak has been called, by the people benefitting from it, The Fappening. As is always the case with this kind of thing, there has been rather a lot of misguided hand-wringing and hysteria. I am not saying, by any means, that the attack on the privacy of these celebrities is ok, or justifiable, or that they ought not to be upset by it. Hacking anyone’s phone or computer is a criminal offence, and is, indeed, morally wrong too. However, that does not mean that the celebs in question haven’t been stupid. I cannot understand why someone in the public eye, someone who is aware that this kind of hacking has been prevalent in recent years, would not say to themselves and to their partner sure, it would be fun to take some sexy snaps, but it’s not worth the risk. No pictures, no leaks. Yes, in an ideal world they could do what they liked, within the bounds of the law, but this is not an ideal world. In an ideal world women would be able to walk home on their own at 3am, or they would be able to accept a lift from a stranger, without these things being dangerous. I’m not victim-blaming; I am advocating common sense. Anyway, for me, if The Fappening is about anything it is about objectification, both voluntary and involuntary objectification; the most pertinent questions raised by the event, in relation to the author under review here, are why is it that these women felt compelled to take and distribute [not to the general public, of course, but to their partners] these pictures despite the risks, risks greater than any possible rewards, and why do some commentators appear to be so surprised and disgusted that we – men – want to see and own them?
How Philip Roth fits into this is that he is the one author, more than any other, who has been accused consistently of objectifying women, of misogyny, of pornography. His critics claim that he is guilty of creating female characters who exist solely as sex objects. Much of the time I think this is bogus, that his female characters are not empty vessels [they have jobs, have opinions, etc]. In any case, i believe that sexism is levelled at the man because women do not understand how men think or, more commonly, they don’t want to accept it; to this end The Fappening ought to be something of an eye-opener. Thousands, millions probably, of dudes looking at, searching for, discussing etc, a bunch of pictures of naked women. It isn’t a minority who are drawn to this sort of thing, it is men, period. And women? All around the world, every day, they are happily taking these pictures, allowing themselves to be objectified. Yes, even celebrities are doing it. What has been most enlightening is that certain women have decided, in order to show support for one of the victims, to post saucy pictures of themselves on public networking sites, thereby achieving nothing other than further titillating the people they are so eager to disparage. Ah, well, how then can one, in the face of all this, read a Philip Roth novel and denounce it? Is he part of the problem or just telling the truth? Isn’t it simply a fact of life that, yes, women are objectified by men and that, conversely, some enjoy being objectified?
Of all the books in Roth’s oeuvre Sabbath’s Theater is the rudest, is the one that could most legitimately be labelled pornographic; it is, in places, pure filth, although never, by any means, erotic. It is also, I ought to confess, the only one of his novels that made me feel slightly uncomfortable, not because of the content per se, but because I felt, at times, as though I was being let into, exposed to, an old man’s [Roth’s] wank fantasies. For example, there are points in the narrative when Drenka, Micky Sabbath’s ludicrous Polish mistress, delivers unnecessarily lengthy monologues about her sexual endeavours and preferences, and I couldn’t help thinking while reading these monologues that only Roth himself was getting off on them, and no one else. Or perhaps, as Sabbath’s Theater is concerned [amongst other things] with the descent into madness of a dirty old man, and so does of course feature old[er] people talking about and engaging in sexual acts, my reaction is the understandable, yet arrogant, shudder of a young man not ready to confront the truth of, the existence of, a healthy elderly libido.
The stuff that generally tends to gross readers out, or offend them – Sabbath wanking over Drenka’s grave, or to a photograph of a College student while staying with her father – didn’t bother me at all; I found those parts of the novel amusing, vaudeville. That some are offended by the novel is galling, not because I want to tell people how to react, but simply because one only needs to read a single review or even the blurb on the back of the book in order to know what is in store for you; let’s be honest, anyone finding themselves offended by Sabbath’s Theater wanted to be, looked and hoped for it. In any case, Mickey Sabbath is deliberately grotesque, deliberately over-the-top; he is Shakespearean in proportion – he is a Richard III or Hamlet; Mickey is a man on the edge, tormented by the loss of his lover, who was apparently quite some sack artist, and petrified of the prospect of not being able, at his age, to replace her. At least on the most superficial level. Yet, what is interesting about a book so full of sex, featuring a man so seemingly sex-obsessed, is that Sabbath’s Theater is not really about sex at all.
I called Sabbath Shakespearean, and he is, but this is a tragedy, not a comedy, as some would have it. Like Ahab, another Shakespearean character, Mickey Sabbath is fighting against some large, terrible foe: old age and, ultimately, death. Again, like Ahab, it is a one-sided battle; old age and death, like the whale, care nothing about Sabbath: they are indiscriminate. For Sabbath his virility is so important because the loss of it would signal that he is over the hill. Once you understand this it throws the Drenka passages into a new, sharper focus; was she really some nymphomaniac, shit-hot sack artist, or is that how Mickey must remember, and imagine, her in order to console himself that he at least once had something, someone, ideal? Or is it simply that memory is often sadistic, that, without you realising it, it recreates, reinvents, your experiences with greater intensity than they ever actually had, so that the sad times become sadder, the happy become happier and so on? So, Sabbath’s breakdown, his outrageous behaviour, is not really about getting his end away, it is about what not getting his end away represents: that he is old, and no longer vital.
If I have any genuine criticism of the book to make it is that it is, perhaps, too long. For example, even if you want to justify the Drenka passages as I have done in the previous paragraph they still, undeniably, ought to have been edited, cut down; far from being shocking, much of the time they are simply boring, are too repetitious. Also, as with all of Roth’s later work the structure is all over the place and the plot pretty non-existent. That is not, for me, a problem, however. Roth’s 90’s novels are meditations, rants, essays almost, and that is why I like them. I like the passion, the drive, the devil-may-care attitude towards literary conventions, the disregard for what readers might want from a novel. Roth did not care to write the perfect novel [he tried that with The Ghost Writer], he wanted to punch you firmly between the eyes, he wanted to rub your nose, in this instance, in the dirt.
For long time Roth readers, what sets Sabbath’s Theatre apart is that it is the novel where Roth himself is least present, where he was able to obscure whatever there is of himself in the book to the extent that the characters do not feel like approximations of the author. Maybe that is why he rates it so highly. For me it isn’t his best [although I did read it five years ago, so perhaps I would value it more were I to give it another go]; that accolade I would give to The Counterlife, despite its ropey final section, or the previously mentioned The Ghost Writer. Still, Sabbath’s Theater is a great read; it is fun, freewheeling, brave and intelligent; it is challenging and controversial; it makes you confront aspects of humanity, and the human condition, that you might prefer to pretend do not exist. And yet, in a way, we should all admire, rather than loathe, Mickey Sabbath, for he is a man who, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, is raging against the dying of the light, he is someone who categorically will not go gentle into that good night.