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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.”

So…yeah.

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.”

Philip-Roth-pictureIt’s no surprise that a lot of Jewish people hated this novel when it was released. I’m curious as to what Chinese people thought of Portnoy’s Complaint.

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.

Other Stuff

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.

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35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Teresa #

    Amen.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
  3. Very helpful post. The premise of the book (parents, guilt, traditional upbringing) sounds fascinating and is exactly the kind of story I tend to gravitate toward, but after reading your review I’ll look for something else. That kind of vulgarity would be too much for me too.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
    • I also say not to just take my word for it, but, yeah, it’s probably the most vulgar book I’ve ever read. I with you in that I loved the premise, but the obscenity was just too much.

      Like

      May 29, 2013
  4. The poor demented soul that wrote that book is in dire need of prayer. I remember this book from decades ago. I, too, felt like I needed a shower and I only read a few pages.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
  5. I read Portnoy not long after grad school when it was still considered a shocker, but also an important development in the history of commercial literature. Here was a serious novel that was funny and chock-full of the things we intuitively know are going on in the world (possibly even in our lives) yet a strict moralistic wet-blanket still covered up and disallowed in any writing not intended for the back-room stash down at the tobacconist shop.

    I suspect you had to grow up in the 1950s to really appreciate what Roth and imprints like Grove Press offered readers who craved new experiences to tap into the repressed emotions and ideas that threatened to clog our lives with respectable dreck.

    Of course nowadays Portnoy is tame and familiar fare at the Junior High level, but once it was our guilty pleasure (imagine masterbating over Jane Eyre). Another book I loved and openly read on the college campus was Maxwell Kenton’s (Terry Southern) Candy … one of the funniest and raunchiest picaresques I ever read.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
    • Thanks for going against the tide here. As much as were are fans and followers of Rob’s project and respect his opinion, it is just an opinion and I’m surprised by the puritans on here willing to condemn or avoid without experience. I feel like people are telling me not to watch The Silence of the Lambs because it contains cannibalism and sadistic themes, or not to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey because they didn’t get it.

      Like

      May 29, 2013
      • I was wondering, humorously, if when taking that much-needed shower, readers sullied by Roth’s potty-mouth would dare to expose their naughty bits. Maybe they leave the light off. Another thought: if Portnoy is too much, how will Molly Bloom be approached? But bottom line, de facto censorship is definitely NOT doing humanity a service, whether it involves Portnoy’s Complaint, The Silence of the Lambs, or My Two Dads.

        Like

        May 29, 2013
        • Mike, you would do well to read the review before commenting. At no point do I propose censorship, and as I mention above I always encourage people to make their own decisions. Let’s just respect the fact that we all I have different opinions on novels and we don’t have to agree. As I’ve mentioned in a post a few days ago, we all have a limit. You do too, Mike. I know I’m a pathetic Puritan because I don’t really enjoy reading the word “Cunt” 150 times, but that’s just me.

          Like

          May 29, 2013
          • I didn’t say you proposed censorship. I was actually responding to the comment that you were doing a great service for humanity, which might be viewed as an acknowledgment of de facto censorship. It wasn’t my observation.

            Like

            May 29, 2013
      • Don’t take my word for it. Give it a whirl yourself. But know that Silence of the Lambs is like Barney compared to this.

        Like

        May 29, 2013
  6. Thanks for the warning. I think I’ll give this one a miss. I’ve read American Pastoral, but preferred The Human Stain to it actually. I recommend that one if you can stand the thought of more Roth.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
    • Good rec. That is the one I actually have my eye on for later.

      Like

      May 29, 2013
  7. itsthelitchick #

    You should read Sherry Ortner’s Reading America: Preliminary Notes on Class and Culture she discusses Roth’s texts in regards to the culture crises of that time.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
  8. dste #

    Well, I certainly won’t be reading that book, but I did read Roth’s The Plot Against America and thought it was quite good. These two books seem very different. I’m curious now what the rest of his works are like.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
  9. Thank you for helping me cross another “should I read?” off my list. You are doing humanity a huge service!

    Like

    May 29, 2013
    • This is so wrong on so many levels. Sad.

      Like

      May 29, 2013
      • I have very little leisure time in which to read, so I must base my selection on some sort of criteria. This review helps me cross this book off my list, while it may help others rank it higher on their “to-be-read” list. It all depends on what you’re looking for in a book. There are many other books in “the canon” and outside the canon that I want to read. And then there will be those that have not yet been written that I will want to add to my list. I will not make it through all of them before I die. So some books will have to fall off my table and remain on the floor. Others will pick them up and enjoy them. Perhaps I’ll read them in my next life, perhaps not.

        Like

        May 29, 2013
  10. I liked the novel up until the end as the vulgarity didn’t bother me, and the book was entertaining throughout + absolutely hilarious at times. The ending, where the Portnoy’s complaint was taken to the next level and shown quite convincingly as a national metaphor, took it up a few notches for me.

    Although I’m not Jewish, Roth’s ability to take all that vulgarity and show its pervasiveness was hugely impressive, and to me completely justified its place on whatever list it has been put on.

    Like

    May 29, 2013
  11. Lisa #

    I really disliked this book… I mean REALLY disliked it. I made it through ‘Lolita,’ some may argue an even more disturbing novel but Portnoy I could not stand. It’s put me off Roth for more than a decade but I’ve decided maybe I could give him just one more chance. We’ll see. But Portnoy… Ugh. What’s so great about it?

    Like

    May 31, 2013
  12. Most commenters on here have talked about the dirtiness of this book and have wondered what is the point of this vulgar novel anyway. I think you guys are missing the real point of the book.

    Portnoy’s Complaint was and remains a revolutionary novel. I don’t think sex and vulgarity is the main point of the book. Portnoy–stuck in an ethnic/ communitarian blackhole– longs to be free and claim his individual freedom.

    In the novel, the intrusive and overbearing family, ethnic patriarchs, chainsmoking and hypocritical rabbi, bullying and physically abusive uncle, mother who constantly nags and blackmails emotionally— these are all the demons that plague Portnoy’s life, they want to control every aspect of his life.

    The above mentioned themes could never become the concerns of a WASP writer like, let’s say, John Updike. Of course, Updike wrote graphic descriptions of sex, sexual intercourse, couple swapping etc. in his novels. But Updike was only describing the lives of middle-class suburban Americans who seem to need “adulterous” sex and couple swapping to bring some “excitement” to their mundane, bourgeois lives. But Philip Roth’s use of graphic sex and vulgarity represents Portnoy’s rebellious–or rather desperate– scream for help.

    As Portnoy says, his “wang” was the only thing he could call his own, and he compulsively masturbates to assert his individual freedom. Later, he obsessively chases, dates, has sex with Shikse–or the Christian white women– in defiance of his famiy’s ethocentric command that he must date and marry a good Jewish girl. (Portnoy remembers from his teen years, how his young cousin– who fell in love with and wanted to marry a gentile girl, Alice– was abused and bullied by his family, relatives, and eventually he was physically wrestled to the floor by his uncle until tears starteed to flow and he gave up on Alice. This backstory serves as Portnoy’s rebellious romantic/sexual exploits as an adult.)

    I believe Philip Roth was the first writer from a non WASP background who so courageously poked a thumb at–or rather gave the finger to– the repression and persecution that exists within an ethnic community. Kudos!

    Lastly, the book in some ways may appear more shocking today, not because of its sexual content but because of its political incorrectness in these politically correct times where anyone who mocks or condemns “ethnic” or “minority” life is agressively booed off the stage.

    But hopefully, Portnoy’s Complaint will stay on and serve as beacon to future fiction writers.

    Like

    June 12, 2013
    • Excellent.

      But just as I am not about to read a Barbara Cartland romance full of flowery prose and dreamy scenes, I suspect many readers will skip books like Portnoy because of the raw and obsessive language. What you point out, though, is that the language is a part of the metaphor and the themes are far deeper than naughty words. With the romances, however, the surface words must stand for themselves since there is nothing beneath the narrative.

      Some readers are happy with the surfaces of life and others see literature as a way to discover a more complex approach to the human condition.

      As Kafka once said, “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

      Like

      June 12, 2013
  13. Mike,

    Certainly, many people wont read a book for its “Message” if the content, style or presentation offends their sensibilities. However, Philip Roth has succeeded enormously by letting people believe that Portnoy’s Complaint is a dirty book with a lot of dirty sex in it. Almost everyone who has lived around the 1960s and 70s has heard about the book. Many have borrowed, bought, read or tried to read Portnoy’s Complaint. The book turned Philip Roth into a millionaire. (Roth has satirized this overnight infamy in his 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound).

    Had Portnoy’s Complaint been marketed as a novel that speaks for a 30-something Jewish young man in revolt against his repressive Jewish family and upbrining, most people would yawn and turn away. I don’t believe that “offensive” content puts most readers off books. If anything, it turns the notorious books into bestsellers. Another example: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. So, yes, Portnoy’s Complaint became a bestseller because sex sells.

    Although, as I have mentioned, sex in Portnoy’s Complaint is used as a great transgressive force and metaphor. For example, when Portnoy admits that the worst thing he has ever done is that he literally F***ed his own family’s dinner, an intelligent reader would see a much deeper meaning in this analogy than its vulgar facade.

    P.S.– Oh, I will never bother with the modern “Romances”! But they do sell millions of copies today. I see women raptly reading these generic books almost anywhere. Even most of Amazon’s bestselling self-published titles are romances. What junk…. I mean I will read and re-read Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre any day. But the modern “romance” genre is for the birds (but… there are millions and millions of these “birds” out there…)

    Like

    June 12, 2013
  14. frissonsentence #

    This might be one of the funniest books I’ve read recently.

    Like

    September 18, 2013
  15. Nicholas #

    In Portnoy’s complaint Philip Roth uses sexual themes to explore many subjects: Jewish identity, parenting, psychiatry, convention, repression, rebellion, freedom. The novel isn’t vulgar – it’s a literary masterpiece. The sexual content is explicit but not gratuitous. The comedic writing is superb. I think it’s helpful to look beyond the sex acts described in the book and to appreciate the author’s command of language and the insights into our common human struggle to mature and define ourselves. Sex is an important and universal part of life, and this book takes a refreshingly candid look at how sex shapes us in all kinds of subconscious and apparently tangential ways. Even if you find sex confronting as subject matter for a book, you will probably find this book worth reading because there is so much more to it than sex.

    Like

    September 23, 2014
  16. Bob #

    Portnoy’s father sells insurance. Alexander Portnoy is Assistant Commissioner for Human Opportunity. This is a point of major importance that gets to the very heart of everything that this novel is about. If you somehow managed to finish Portnoy’s Complaint thinking that the protagonist is in the insurance business (and I can’t for the life of me imagine how), you have spectacularly missed the point. A re-read might be in order.

    Like

    July 31, 2015

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