5 Reasons to (re)Read Portnoy’s Complaint
Recently the American writer Philip Roth announced he was quitting literature. He wrote constantly throughout his life—from his early twenties to his mid-seventies. It was probably time to call it a day. Not least because—as someone who was one of the defining voices of 20th century America—he admitted to a French magazine that “I am seventy-eight years old, I don’t know anything any more about America today”. Writing had consumed him. “I’m done”, he said.
Roth casts a huge shadow over the 20th century American literary landscape. He is seemingly criticised as often as he is praised. When he won the Man Booker International Prize in 2011, Hermione Lee described him as a “great literary adventurer, performer, and self-transformer.” Yet, for the very same award, judge Carmen Callil said that reading Roth is “as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”
So which is the real Roth? Does he use his pen to take you on an adventure, or his arse to stop you breathing?
If you’ve read Portnoy’s Complaint—Roth’s raging and hilarious novel from 1969—you’ll probably have an opinion either way. Many dislike the novel; they say it’s neurotic, sacrilegious and puerile. Others, meanwhile, love it; they say it’s neurotic, sacrilegious and puerile.
Portnoy’s Complaint is a monolithic outpouring from a “lust-ridden, mother addicted young Jewish bachelor” to his psychoanalyst. If you thought Tony Soprano was a highly strung, deeply repressed psychotherapy patient, you’ve not met Alexander Portnoy. He exclaims the darkest and funniest cubby holes of his psyche—explicitly kvetching about sex, Jewishness, masturbation, his overbearing mother, his perpetually constipated father and more sex.
At 43 years old, this novel is as cutting, funny and shocking as anything half its age. Here are five reasons why you should (re)read Portnoy’s Complaint:
It is still one of the biggest and best “Fuck Yous” the establishment ever got.
For better or for worse, the Jewish establishment got it. Jewish-American identity is Roth’s most persistent theme, but rarely is he as irreverent about his roots as he is in Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth sees his duel identity as a paradox—being both Jewish and American is a stifling conflict for the writer. He venomously spits out at the heritage that suffocates him. “Good Christ,” he writes, “a Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die!”
Though he had grappled with such identity issues before, it had always been respectfully. No more: “Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” shouts Portnoy.
Leaders of the Jewish community recoiled in disgust and misunderstanding. Even Jewish intellectuals like Irving Howe and Diana Trilling slammed Roth as an “exceedingly joyless writer” who wrote a “cheap string of nightclub shtick”.
And it wasn’t just the Jewish community that took offence. Middle America acted like a jock that’d just been out-manoeuvred by a geek on a frat-party dance floor. Panties a-twist, the literary and cultural establishment of America hurled abuse at Roth. He was disgraceful! He was an enfant terrible!
Written only ten years after the American government had tried for the last time to censor obscene literature, Portnoy’s Complaint made a mockery of the Supreme Court. 43 years on, this story of man’s first and one true love (masturbation) is still a hilarious “fuck you” to respectability.
It has one intensely funny one-liner about every two pages
My favourite? “Doctor doctor, what do you say, let’s put the id back in yid!”
Rightly or wrongly, it paved the way for American Pie
Roth pioneers a technique later developed in American Pie; cuisine-assisted autoeroticism. In English? Wanking with food. Portnoy masturbates using a piece of liver – which his mother later serves for dinner. The visceral hilarity-cum-disgust (pun intended) of this scene is echoed, decades later, in American Pie when hapless everyman Jason Biggs scolds his willy in a hot pie. Portnoy’s Complaint is where food, raging teenage horndogs and pop culture first met. Whatever you think of American Pie, you should revisit where the phenomenon started. You wouldn’t listen to Oasis but not the Beatles, would you?
For an angry book, it has one hell of a punch line
The book combines political and personal rage supremely. Roofs are raised, barns are stormed and trails are well and truly blazed. All this makes Roth’s parting shot in Portnoy’s Complaint an intensely satisfying zinger.
As angry and funny as it is, the novel is also beautiful and thoughtful
Like much of Roth’s back catalogue, Portnoy’s Complaint displays the writer’s great ability to be both brutal and beautiful. A would-be multi-contradiction of anger, hilarity and thoughtfulness is perfectly executed. The following passage displays this, but could also be a description of Roth’s style itself: “My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn’t just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you’ve got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren’t only bombs and bullets -no, they’re little gifts, containing meanings!”
Aside from all his powerful (self) hate, it is this duel, would-be-paradoxical style that is the most memorable thing about Roth. Beautiful yet brutal. Taking you on an adventure, yet sitting on your face.