Portnoy's Complaint

by Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint was published the year I was born: 1969. Considered groundbreaking, racy, & eyebrow raising at the time—mostly for its blatant sex scenes—I was expecting to be underwhelmed given that it's now 40 years later. Instead, I find the need to start off this review with a warning: Portnoy's Complaint still reads as pornographic. Do not go into it if you are repulsed by or take umbrage at plainspoken descriptions of sex acts from a male point of view. Of course if you are not faint of "heart" in that way—in fact, if you are just the opposite—it is delicious reading.

Portnoy's Complaint is structured as a singular rant, a soliloquy, delivered from a client to his psychiatrist. It is effectively an unbroken monologue, punctuated only by rhetorical questions as part of the rant. The client, Alexander Portnoy, presents himself to the psychiatrist because he wants to know how it is, given his upbringing by overbearing Jewish parents, that he isn't more neurotic than he already is, or gay, or insane, or homicidal, suicidal, patricidal, or matricidal. Although his mother & father weren't overbearing across the board, they overreached into areas in which he simply desired to be left alone and then were ridiculing or minimizing of the things that actually mattered to him. He feels that his parents F*ed him up so badly (especially in the face of his libido and especially when that libido was nascent and burgeoning)...how is it that he isn't worse off, doc??

Browse through the following bullet points, and if you want light shed on any of them, read Portnoy's Complaint.
• Continuums: madonna–whore, approach–avoid, desire–contempt, juice–gravy (inside joke for those who possess the twenty-fifth anniversary edition complete with afterword).
• Post-orgasmic emotional vanishment.
• In fact, emotional vanishment in general! Or emotional nonexistence, even! The protagonist favors nicknames for his conquests, and in the pages of this novel we are introduced to The Monkey, The Pumpkin, and The Pilgrim. Classic Bitch's dad counts among his dates "Miss Chile," "My Japanese Girlfriend," and "Ms. Lips." (I have no idea what these women's names actually are.) I have a friend who was married to a woman I know only via stories as "Nutcase" and later pursued by a woman he refers to as "Boston." (OK, fine, in the interest of fairness, I have "My Gay Boyfriend" and "Mr. Nobody." Don't say I never told you anything.) The point is that sobriquets are useful in inserting & maintaining distance.
• There is a specific grass-is-always-greener dichotomy that we've known since antiquity, up through the era of Mad Men, Alexander Portnoy, and still today, yet over which we continue to beat our heads against the wall. To wit: Never underestimate the power of wanting something to be right even in the face of knowing that it isn't. It's the strongest force in the Universe. Every married person wants to be single, and every single person wants to be married. LONGITUDINAL MONOGAMY IS NOT WHAT HUMAN BEINGS WERE DESIGNED FOR. PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT IS EVERYBODY'S COMPLAINT.

Philip Roth remains highly relevant reading. Case in point is Katie Roiphe's erudite piece in The New York Times Book Review, published concurrently with my reading of Portnoy's Complaint as a happy coincidence. In it she wonders where the explicit maleness in the works of younger male writers has gone in the modern era (and secondarily, if it has attenuated due to feminism). Even more readable are the letters to the editor that follow her piece a couple weeks later. In them some people claim that we are as a society (with sex everywhere) essentially "post sex," and a male author today writing an explicit, typical, stereotypical, or even offensive sex scene is no longer as daring, advanced, or courageous as a male author writing a scene that depicts real intimate emotional engagement interpersonally. (As to Roiphe's secondary supposition, some correspondents wax: Would that feminism were that powerful!) In other words, as John Fowles wrote in 1965 in The Magus, "In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love." Or if you prefer a more modern referent, see a postcard from last week's PostSecret, also serendipitous: "Sex comes easy. What I wouldn't do for a man to hold my hand."

To wrap things up, I'd like to go back to discussing the pornographic writing that comprises Portnoy's Complaint: I'm not joking about it, by the way. It is even harder core, in a couple or three passages, than the hardest core stuff out there today! It's not a book you should pick up "used." Classic Bitch makes this mistake and soon discovers that the likely source of the "water" staining that ripples her copy's lower corner is what Philip Roth describes in the very book as, "[T]hat sticky sauce of buttermilk and Clorox." (I force two friends to sniff the area of the book under question, and they confirm that it smells "biological.") You could easily whack it to this book; somebody did; millions probably have. In case any reader of Classic Bitch is out there currently on the prowl for material of this variety—and you can't get off on billboard & magazine ads, lyrics of urban music, or simply free porn on the Internet (all of which may threaten Philip Roth's relevance today)—then grab a copy of Portnoy's Complaint, and grab it hard: Portnoy's Complaint satisfies.