Saturday, June 07, 2008

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (1969)


When I think of Alexander Portnoy -- a 33-year old American Jew who grew up in Jersey City -- I imagine Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce rolled into one. Portnoy is the main character in Philip Roth's exquisitely vulgar 1969 novel "Portnoy's Complaint."

What exactly is Portnoy's "complaint"? Given that the entire novel is Portnoy's monologue with his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel, understandably the novel begins with a clinical definition:

Portnoy's Complaint n. A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. Spielvogel says: 'Acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus are plentiful; as a consequence of the patient's "morality," however, neither fantasy nor act issues a genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.' (Spielvogel, O. "The Puzzled Penis," Internationale Zeitschrift fur Psychoanalyse, Vol XXIV p.909). It is believed by Spielvogel that many of the symptoms can be traced to the bonds obtaining in the mother-child relationship.
So, to put it plainly, Portnoy's Complaint is that he is somehow prevented from enjoying any of his impulses and this -- at least he says -- forces him to the extremes.

I'm sure you can imagine that Portnoy, Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York, is not married and is not not particularly interested in getting married. He's terrified at the prospect of getting bored with his mate -- and considering his frank, mechanical, vulgar descriptions of sex, it isn't surprising why he's terrified of settling down.

Roth's novel has a real shock-and-awe feel to it. Roth is deliberately trying to unveil subject matter that would otherwise never see the light of day -- and amazingly, almost 40 years after its publication, the novel has more urgency, depth, and electricity than any of our sophomoric, campy, "Sex and the City"-ish counterparts.

I finished the novel about two months ago and I've had a hard time trying to mull it over. Obviously, there are some passages that are "shocking," but the excitement is as fleeting as -- well, you know. I find myself wishing now that Roth had spent more time exploring the most exciting themes in the book: guilt, family, and identity. Portnoy's description of his parents -- "These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time!" -- are brilliant. And the way in which Portnoy describes his peculiar sense of alienation when visiting the 'homeland' reminded me of my trips abroad.

"Portnoy's Complaint" is an exploration of guilt (of the middle-class, American-Jew variety). And in comparison to the fleeting impact of Portnoy's escapades, experiencing Roth's part-fictional caricatures of his upbringing and realizing that they were not that far off from my own is lasting.

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