Checking through the old Roth paperbacks, one notices how many of them make the same bid for attention: “His most erotic novel since Portnoy’s Complaint,” or “his best since Portnoy’s Complaint,” or “his best and most erotic since Portnoy’s Complaint.” These claims are understandable, as is the assumption that Roth is likely to be at his best when most “erotic,” but that word is not really adequate to the occasion. There’s no shortage of erotic fiction; what distinguishes Roth’s is its outrageousness. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to be “erotically” shocking, considerable feats of imagination are required to produce a charge of outrage adequate to his purposes. It is therefore not easy to understand why people complain and say things like “this time he’s gone over the top” by being too outrageous about women, the Japanese, the British, his friends and acquaintances, and so forth. For if nobody feels outraged the whole strategy has failed.
It seems essential to understand the seriousness of Roth’s transgressive imaginings. He is hilariously serious about life and death. In this new book life is represented as anarchic horniness on the rampage against death and its harbingers, old age and impotence. There is only one possible outcome: life can’t win against the last enemy. It can at best put on a scandalously good show. So there is really only one way for him to tell the story—defiantly, facing the outrage of death with outraged phallic energy.
D.H. Lawrence, complaining about Arnold Bennett’s “resignation” or “acceptance” in Anna of the Five Towns, said that tragedy ought to be a great kick at misery. Simply to accept misery, resign oneself to the inevitable, is merely pathetic; the kick of tragedy can convert misery into something magnificent, worthier of the living. Such is the kick delivered by Sabbath’s Theater, not only the adman’s “best” and “most erotic” but—as a reviewer might on rare occasions be allowed to say—among the most remarkable novels in recent years. With his Rabelaisian range and fluency, his deep resources of obscenity, his sense that suffering and dying can be seen as unacceptable though inevitable aberrations from some huge possible happiness, Roth is equipped for his great subject—one that was treated in their own rather different ways by the authors of Genesis and Paradise Lost.
We are disposed to think well of some novels because they have the power to make social subversion attractive. Hence the picaro of early fiction, or Defoe’s Moll Flanders, or the Smollett heroes who “take to the highway by way of a frolic,” or even Lovelace’s fatal assault on the virtue of Clarissa. They all, in their measure, provide a touch of the diabolic, in Blake’s sense. Hell is energy, the energy of the anarch is hellish. Georg Lukács called Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull a “satyr-play,” meaning that it inherits the force of its antecedent tragedies …