Prolific, hilarious, shameless, truth-bearing.
Like his anti-hero, Mickey Sabbath, Roth had “the talent of a ruined man for recklessness, of a saboteur for subversion, even the talent of a lunatic — or a simulated lunatic — to overawe and horrify ordinary people.” Whether young and reckless like Ozzie Freedman, or old and reckless like Sabbath, Roth’s characters tend to age toward self-hatred at the settled spectacle of their all-too-human depravity, their daily hopeless struggle (no; they’ve given up the struggle) against sloth, filth, lust, despair, envy, violence…
Notice how, in the excerpt from Sabbath’s Theater, the name Dostoevsky recurs:
I had been reading O’Neill. I was reading Conrad. A guy on board had given me books. I was reading all that stuff and jerking myself off over it. Dostoyevsky — everybody going around with grudges and immense fury, rage like it was all put to music…
The unbearable lightness of being. Unmitigated rage at being. Writers put this to music. What was it I quoted in a post a few days ago? A writer’s comment on the suicide of musician Scott Hutchison:
Frightened Rabbit [Hutchison’s band] was virtuosic when it came to expressing the odd anxieties of an early, hungover morning, when a person wakes up and has to reckon with herself, again — the relentless ennui of being, and being, and being, and being.
The deeply hopeless lowness of the human can be played strictly for laughs – Portnoy’s Complaint, or Woody Allen’s “Notes from the Overfed” – but the best writers at their best (Kafka) throw in high and low for a real Alban Berg effect.
Roth located this modern leit-motif and settled there, teasing out variations on our vileness and our moment-by-moment reckoning with our vileness, a reckoning that grinds on without any Jesus to perceive and forgive and redeem.