Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

I read this book because one of my neighbours recommended the author. I’ve read some of his other books and quite enjoyed them. This book was probably a bit too explicit for me, filled with far too many things which I really did not need to know. I won’t spoil the book by explaining myself further, I will simply include the chapter titles as a clue: The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve met, Whacking Off, The Jewish Blues, Cunt Crazy, The Most prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life, and In Exile.

Despite the moments of extreme discomfort involved in reading this book, I quite enjoyed parts of the novel, particularly some of the humour. This is a book filled to the brim with a wonderful sense of familial awareness, of guilt brought on by parental expectations and of the anxiety that comes with any coming of age story. Alexander Portnoy is the protagonist and the book is narrated as an unburdening to his therapist. As a consequence, the story unfolds in a colloquial, chatty style with constant references to the Doctor who is supposedly listening.

But the book is actually more about ‘not listening’ than it is about ‘listening’ and/or hearing. It describes Portnoy’s desire to be anyone other than himself, to absolve himself of what he sees as his overbearing mother (“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.”), his embarrassing family and the antiquated rituals which he thinks smother his ability to express himself. His family are clearly all incapable to actually communicating with each other in any sort of meaningful way, and Portnoy has successfully deluded himself into thinking that he can find meaning by focusing solely on his penis and its performance (or lack their of).

Portnoy’s relationship with his mother is, on the surface, the one constant in this text. He is her only son, one of two children, the light of her life and the bearer of all her dreams and expectations:

“My own mother, let me remind you, when I returned this past summer from adventure in Europe, greets me over the phone with the following salutation: ‘Well, how’s my lover?’Her lover she calls me, while her husband is listening on the other extension! And it never occurs to her, if I’m her lover, who is he, the schmegeggy she lives with? No, you don’t have to go digging where these people are concerned – they wear the old unconscious on their sleeves!”

Portnoy’s father, on the other hand, is a downtrodden man whose head aches all the time and who suffers from constant constipation. This is ironically explained in stark juxtaposition to Portnoy’s own ability to constantly (and I mean CONSTANTLY and UBIQUITOUSLY) “express” himself penilely.

Portnoy describes his father as intellectually inferior, stuck in the rut of his life, and incapable of expressing himself:

“Where he had been imprisoned, I would fly: that was his dream. Mine was its corollary: in my liberation would be his – from ignorance, from exploitation, from anonymity. To this day our destinies remain scrambled together in my imagination, and there are still too many times when, upon reading in some book a passage that impresses me with its logic or its wisdom, instantly, involuntarily, I think, ‘If only he could read this. Yes! Read, and understand -!’”

He shares with the readers, in quiet confidences, his disappointments about his father:

“My father, you must understand – as doubtless you do: blackmailers account for a substantial part of the human community, and, I would imagine, of your clientele – my father has been ‘going’ for this tumor test for nearly as long as I can remember. Why his head aches him all the time is, of course, because he is constipated all the time – why he is constipated all the time is because ownership of his intestinal tract is in the hands of the form of Worry, Fear & Frustration.”

His constant and ongoing frustrations with his family:

“Christ, in the face of my defiance – if my father had only been my mother! And my mother my father! But what a mix-up of the sexes in our house! Who should by rights be advancing on me, retreating – and who should be retreating, advancing! Who should be scolding, collapsing in helplessness, enfeebled totally by a tender heart! And who should be collapsing, instead scolding, correcting, reproving, criticizing, faultfinding without end! Filling the patriarchal vacuum!”

And it is this patriarchal vacuum that brings readers to understand part of the sad crux of this tale: Portnoy perceives himself as “a boy without a father“. On so many different levels, Portnoy desires to “be the one”, to have some defined role which he can embrace and to sink into the security that that knowledge brings with it. Ultimately, it is this that drives this novel, the protagonist’s overwhelming desires to bring meaning to his life and to ‘find himself’ in a way that he has in the past been unable.

“How have I come to be such an enemy and flayer of myself? And so alone! Oh, so alone! Nothing but self! Locked up in me! Yes, I have to ask myself (as the airplane carries me – I believe – away from my tormentor), what has become of my purposes, those decent and worthwhile goals? Home? I have none. Family? No! Things I could own just by snapping my fingers … so why not snap them then, and get on with my life? No, instead of tucking in my children and lying down beside a loyal wife (to whom I am loyal too), I have, on two different evenings, taken to bed with me – coinstantaneously, as they say in the whorehouses – a fat little Italian whore and an illiterate, unbalanced American mannequin.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Roth is a superb writer, a craftsman indeed. And there are so many aspects of this tome that I appreciated. But this book is not everyone’s cup of tea (it is certainly not everyone’s piece of liver, that’s for sure), but if you are not faint-hearted and enjoy a bit of a literary jostle, then go ahead and have a read. Let me know what you think!


6 responses to “Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

  1. I loved this book, it’s so funny and includes so many real things about what it is to be a child whose parents expect too much of you.
    Right, the language is raw. English isn’t my mother tongue, so maybe I didn’t perceive exactly how raw it is.
    There’s a review on my blog if you’re interested.

  2. Thanks, I’ll check out your review. For me, so much of this book was an ‘in joke’ which I expect would be missed by many. I did find myself laughing quite a bit, but I don’t think I’ll rush to read another Roth!

  3. I read The Dying Animal and I really enjoyed it. I have The Plot Against America on my shelf, eventually I will get to it!

  4. Take note that Bookaroundthecorner makes reference to The Human Stain – definitely the best book of his that I have read.

  5. The liver comment at the end got me, thanks for the laughs. Also, good analysis of the book.

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