Book review: Portnoy’s Complaint
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. Recommended.
Combination lengthy kvetch and documentation of a fictional psychiatric disorder, Portnoy’s Complaint addresses the narrator’s life as a first-generation American Jew and an oversexed male. As both, Alexander Portnoy is unable to reconcile his desire for the American dream with his desire for compliant shikses.
Portnoy is at war with his parents, his Jewish heritage, goy society, women, and, of course, himself. He claims to despise his parents’ flair for the dramatic, yet his entire monologue is an exercise in self-centered comic hyperbole. As an atheist, he has no use for the Jewish faith, but he aspires to the camaraderie and sense of community experienced by the neighborhood Jewish men who play baseball on Sundays. The goyish middle class around him fascinates him with what he perceives to be the perfection of life that goes on behind their curtains and repels him with their religion and its imagery.
Portnoy refers to his girlfriends by nicknames such as The Monkey and The Pilgrim, which focus on what they represent to him rather than on who they are. When they are problematic, as The Monkey often is, they become individuals with greater mental issues than his own. When they are nearly perfect — upper middle-class shikses with centuries-long pedigrees, like The Pilgrim — they fail to satisfy Portnoy’s cravings for all that is not the sexual equivalent of white bread. He finally encounters a Jewish woman — in Israel — but he is not up to the challenge on any level. Mostly, Portnoy claims to want one thing while actively seeking its opposite. He is not so different from anyone else.
Part of Portnoy’s bemusement lies in how the world actually works. While he, a model student and citizen, lives a secret life that would indeed cause the headlines he fears if it were made public, he learns that two of his former schoolmates, unfettered by the type of parental attention that he finds so suffocating and free to pursue the degenerate lifestyle he desires, end up, not behind bars, but behind the curtained windows of American middle-class success, enjoying all that comes with it — including marriage. Portnoy is disturbed to discover that there is no guaranteed cause and effect. Anyone can achieve the American dream if they wish. His failure is another opportunity to blame his parents.
According to Roth, Portnoy has “strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses,” but there is not much in Portnoy’s character that is either ethical or altruistic. While his father sells life insurance to New Jersey’s poor blacks and his mother furtively disinfects the dishes and silverware used by the black housekeeper, Portnoy is on his way to becoming the assistant commissioner of human opportunity for New York City. In this position, he shows little genuine compassion or empathy for the poor minorities who seek his support. He has no more interest in the people he represents, other than as symbols of his liberal socialism, than he has in Rosh Hashanah or the other defining aspects of Jewish heritage and experience. His only interest in his lover’s threats of suicide are in the potential headlines — the possibility that his real persona will be exposed.
In a symbolic way, Portnoy resembles a man from his childhood whom he despised for his pretentious piety — Rabbi Warshaw, he of the “Pall Mall breath.” With his position as protector of the minority underclass and his apparent social liberalism, Portnoy is pious, or at least self-righteous, on the outside, but perhaps inside he, like the rabbi and his foul breath, is not so sweet or idealistic as he appears.
Despite the 289 pages of uninterrupted monologue, the reader never really knows Portnoy. The pages and pages of hyperbole make him an unreliable narrator. Because it is a monologue, he chooses what he tells — and doesn’t tell — the mysteriously silent and patient psychiatrist. The reader cannot know how much of this fiction is “true” within its context and how much is Portnoy putting into practice the flair for drama that so exasperates him in his parents — his father, whose bowels never move, and his mother, who believes that she nearly died from once tasting a prohibited delicacy and who can never let anyone forget it. Portnoy’s Complaint reads like a long, drawn-out wet dream; a long, drawn-out comic monologue; or an odd combination of both. I can envision an abbreviated version of this novel as a one-man stage show.
While not for the prudish or the conventional (Portnoy seems to say out loud the types of things most people prefer to repress, even to themselves), Portnoy’s Complaint is a funny, evocative, tactless look at the American experience. You do not have to be Jewish to appreciate Portnoy or his trials, trivial as they are. I suspect most male readers will recognize Alexander Portnoy in themselves, together with his confused and confusing desires for middle-class respectability and his need to push the bounds of sexual expression — although I cannot imagine that very many would admit it.
30 March 2006
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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