#19: Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth

Begun: 3/11/2011
Finished: 3/19/2011
Format: Trade Paperback
Rating: 4.5/5

This book was released in 1969.  At the time, it was hugely controversial, and it’s not hard to see why as it is when one reads some formerly controversial novels with the eyes and sensibilities of today (ever read Peyton Place?  Not so shocking).  Some sections of this book definitely made me go “DAY-um.”  Steeped in the sexual revolution, this is still Roth’s most famous book even given his forty years of acclaimed output that followed it.  Reading his books in order as I am, I’m struck by this sudden shift in tone, as if Roth consciously sat down to write it with a “No More Mr. Nice Writer” attitude.  He just let it fly, as does the narrator, with frequency (the frequent and vivid descriptions of masturbation were revolutionary at the time).

The book is a long monologue by the narrator, Alexander Portnoy, centered on his oppressively Jewish childhood and his current life of sexual disinhibition and the conflict that’s engendered in him between these two warring impulses.  The book is very raunchy.  I don’t like to use words like “filthy” or “dirty” to describe sexual themes because I dislike the equating of sexuality with dirtiness, but if I did use those words, they would be appropriate here.  At the same time the book is funny, sometimes screamingly so, and paints such a vivid picture of Portnoy’s life, whipsawing back and forth in time, that one feels they’re living it with him.  Portnoy’s parents, the overbearing Jewish mother and marytred father, approach caricature but skate the line with such finesse that one can’t help but believe in them.  Made me grateful to have grown up in boring old Protestant Wisconsin, tell you what.

Roth is often accused of misogyny and I can see why.  Portnoy’s girlfriend is portrayed as a sex-crazy none-too-bright shikse with ridiculous aspirations to respectability and family.  I’m not sure this qualified as misogyny exactly, as there are no doubt women in the world like this.  Her character is never blamed upon her, and Portnoy’s inability to deal with it is blamed on nobody but him.  And Portnoy described two other women who were important in his life, speaking of them with respect and admiration – although the message is undercut when he all but rapes one of them in the only scene in the novel that made me really uncomfortable.  No doubt as was its intent.

There are a lot of books that get banned or protested against that I don’t understand why.  This is not one of those books.  Doesn’t mean I agree.  But I can understand why more buttoned-up people would object to its content.

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