Book 57: Portnoy’s Complaint
I need a shower.
No, really, I need a shower. I know that I started off my review of Dog Soldiers with the same phrase. But that was a joke. A ha-ha funny, lame joke.
But when I finished Portnoy’s Complaint, I literally needed a shower. My skin felt like it was covered in yuckiness, nastiness just from exposing my cranial tissue (is that something?) to that novel.
What’s so sad about this is how much I loved my first experience with Philip Roth’s writing: American Pastoral was outstanding. But Portnoy’s Complaint, despite Roth’s engaging and funny writing style, was just too much.
As I mentioned in my post, How Many C Words Is Too Many C Words?, reading this novel seems similar to what reading the transcript of a porn movie might be like. A literary, highly-acclaimed porn movie, but a porn movie nonetheless.
Let me tell you a little about Portnoy’s Complaint.
The framework of the novel is unique. Alexander Portnoy is meeting with his therapist (wait a minute, is this the new Gatsby movie?) and basically spilling all the beans about every graphic and detestable thing he’s ever done.
It’s a monologue. By Portnoy mentioning “doctor” in the first person here and there in the monologue, Roth always reminds you of this framework.
So why is Portnoy in therapy? Jewish guilt. He was raised by two, strict Jewish parents. His sexually promiscuous nature—often self-directed if you know what I mean—conflicts with the morals his parents beat over his head as a child.
Even as an adult—a successful Insurance Commissioner of some sort—his parents hound him to no end. They hound him about getting married, driving convertibles, staying out late, and everything you could ever imagine. Here are a few quotes that describe Portnoy’s issues with his parents.
“A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die!”
“A Jewish man with his parents alive is half the time a helpless infant!”
“Even in the Chinese restaurant, where the Lord has lifted the ban on pork dishes for the obedient children of Israel, the eating of lobster Cantonese is considered by God (Whose mouthpiece on earth, in matter pertaining to food, is my Mom) to be totally out of the question.”
So that sets the background for Alex Portnoy. The guy pretty much hates his parents and struggles with his Jewish upbringing.
But that’s just the set up. Three-quarters of the novel focuses on two things: 1) Alex Portnoy masturbating and 2) Alex Portnoy’s sexual exploits with a prostitute he picks up and nicknames “The Monkey.”
There’s a lot of that stuff going on.
Don’t misunderstand. The book isn’t without a few high points. Portnoy’s Complaint is actually a wickedly funny novel. Philip Roth shines as an irreverent, humor writer here.
“I can lie about my name, I can lie about my school, but how am I going to lie about this [f…ing] nose? “You seem like a very nice person Mr. Porte-Noir, but why do you go around covering the middle of your face like that?” Because suddenly it has taken off, the middle of my face! Because gone is the button of my childhood years, that pretty little thing that people used to look at in my carriage, and lo and behold, the middle of my face has begun to reach out towards God. Porte-Noir and Parsons my ass, kid, you have got J-E-W written right across the middle of your face…”
Roth has no problem with ethnic jokes either.
“Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white–and maybe even Anglo Saxon. Imagine! No wonder the waiters can’t intimidate us. To them we’re just some big-nosed variety of WASP! Boy, do we eat. Suddenly even the pig is no threat.”
It’s just a barrage of vileness, the literary equivalent of walking in a truck stop restroom and doing the things that people do in truck stop restrooms for 30 minutes.
In all honesty, I don’t understand why this novel is on the list. I don’t get the appeal of it.
Greg Streech asked me in one of the comments whether or not reading Portnoy’s Complaint changed my opinion of Philip Roth—keeping in mind that I actually really liked American Pastoral.
Yes, I believe it did. As far as the Time list concerned, I’m finished with Roth. When this is over, I will do more research on his books to decide whether or not I’d read another one.
He’s obsessed with sex, and not in a good way. It’s a theme that carries through most of his novels, from what I understand.
As much as I enjoyed American Pastoral, that’s how much I disliked Portnoy’s Complaint. Despite Roth’s humor and clever writing style, this was a tough, tough read.
The Opening Line: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”
The Meaning: The novel’s title, Portnoy’s Complaint, also describes the entire text of the novel. What I mean is Alex Portnoy’s monologue to his psychiatrist is his “complaint.” He’s describing every awful, humiliating, grotesque, sad thing that’s every happened to him. All of it, by his estimation, is because of his Jewish upbringing and the resulting guilt that has plagued him during his entire life.
Highlights: It’s a funny novel. Roth has a style that’s all his own. Wickedly witty. The passages in which Portnoy is describing his father’s constipation issues are some of the best lines about defecation in literature.
Lowlights: I didn’t count all the uses of the C-word, but it had to be in the hundreds. Philip Roth beats you over the head with vulgarity in this book. It’s almost constant. Portnoy’s Complaint is not for the faint of heart.
Memorable Line: “A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die!”
Final Thoughts: Thank God it’s over. I’ll be rating Portnoy’s Complaint very low for different reasons than the other novels toward the bottom of my rankings. Portnoy’s complaint wasn’t tedious or pretentious or unimaginative. At points, it was actually funny and engaging. But most of this novel was just vulgar beyond belief. It was too much. Now, let me go take that shower.