History: Published in 1969 this American novel turned its author Philip Roth into a major celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver that his mother eventually uses for dinner.
It is a continuous monologue as narrated by its speaker, Alexander Portnoy, to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel; Roth later explained that the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session, was motivated by "the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation," which would "permit me to bring into my fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that [...] in another fictional environment would have struck me as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene."
Portnoy is "a lust-ridden, mother addicted young Jewish bachelor," and the narration weaves through time describing scenes from each stage of his life; every recollection in some way touches upon his central dilemma: his inability to enjoy the fruits of his sexual adventures even as his extreme libidinal urges force him to seek release in ever more creative (and, in his mind, degrading and shameful) acts of eroticism; also, much of his dilemma is that "his sense of himself, his past, and his ridiculous destiny is so fixed".
Roth is not subtle about defining this as the main theme of his book. On the first page of the novel, one finds this clinical definition of "Portnoy's Complaint", as if taken from a manual on sexual dysfunction: Portnoy's Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature...
Ever since its publication, speculation has abounded as to how much of Portnoy's Complaint is fiction and how much is thinly veiled autobiography. Roth himself pokes fun at these parlor games in his 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound, where alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman is continually accosted by clueless strangers who cannot believe he was exercising the creative faculties of a writer when he wrote the sex scenes in Carnovsky (the alter-novel to Portnoy's Complaint).
Still, by cross-referencing data from interviews, the autobiography of ex-wife Claire Bloom, Roth's own pseudo-autobiography The Facts, and his more biographically mimetic Zuckerman novels, the following can be established about Portnoy's Complaint with a high degree of certainty.
The central female character of Portnoy's Complaint, Mary Jane Reed (aka "The Monkey") is a caricature of Roth's first wife, Margaret Martinson. Specifically, the women share the same neurotic need to submerge themselves in Portnoy's/Roth's Jewish identity so as to co-opt some of the same family love that was missing from their own lives.
Roth and Portnoy share the same birth-year (1933) and birth place.
Plot: This well-known novel, once-controversial because of its graphic sexual and religious content, is the story of Alexander Portnoy, a profoundly troubled young Jewish man struggling with several disquieting obsessions. Narrated from a passionate, highly articulate and frantic stream of consciousness point of view, the book explores themes relating to the nature and purpose of sexuality, Jewishness, and freedom.
This narrative of one man's tortured explorations of his past and present is told from the first person point of view, unfolding through a complicated, cause-triggering-effect relationship between past and present, idea and feeling, insight and observation. It begins with the narrator's blunt, serio-comic description of his very Jewish, very controlling, and very frustrating parents, and continues with a graphic and uncompromising description of his obsession with sex in general, and masturbation in particular.
Narration reveals that the teller of these often raucous, frequently ranting, occasionally poignant stories, Alex. First he focuses on his perpetually constipated, ambitious, disappointed, disappointing, increasingly embittered father, he then refers to his superficially perfect, image-obsessed, subconsciously racist, socially competitive mother, with his opinion of her summed up in the narrative of how she steam-sterilized the dishes and cutlery used by their black maid while talking about how generous she (mother) was compared to other employers.
Alex's principal concern is his obsession with masturbation. He describes in graphic, comic detail the number of times he masturbated as a child and young adolescent (up to four times a day) and the various ways he masturbated (at school into a urinal, between courses at dinner, wearing his sister's soiled panties over his head).
Alex describes at length the nature of his obsession, how he experiences his numerous sexual affairs of various lengths, and how much more fair it is to live this way (by responding freely to his sexual desires) rather than putting some poor woman through the torture of an eventually unloving, inevitably unfaithful marriage.
He refers specifically to a woman he calls The Monkey ("a nickname that derives from a little perversion she once engaged in shortly before meeting me and going on to grander things ...") and to how The Monkey erupted in wounded fury when he told her he was ending their relationship instead of marrying her.
her encounter with a married couple who wanted her to watch and eat a banana while they were making love—later, however, The Monkey confesses that it was she who wanted the banana. Alex also describes how subsequent relationships all went bad, until she met him—in her mind, Alex suggests, he was her savior, her future husband and breadwinner. He describes in crude, intimate detail how they picked each other up on the street, had sex right away, and how she eventually started opening her mind...
In college there were two important relationships Alex had with shikses during his college years, bringing him in more contact with his Jewishness and alienation from the “Goya” . He travels to Israel, where he has a brief sexual encounter with Lima, asks her to marry him, and she refuses.
At the core of an individual's onion-like layered truth, the only option is to rebuild, to create new layers of truth and experience (genuine this time) on the individual's core needs. The end of this journey is in fact the beginning, of a layering process that, in an oyster and over a long period of time, constructs a pearl.
Review: The title also alludes to the common literary form of Complaint, such as A Lover's Complaint, which typically presents the speaker's comments on being a spurned lover.
Other topics touched on in the book include the assimilation experiences of American Jews, their relationship to the Jews of Israel, and the pleasures and perils the narrator sees as inherent in being the son of a Jewish family.
Portnoy's Complaint is also emblematic of the times during which it was published. Most obviously, the book's sexual frankness was both a product of and an inspiration for the sexual revolution that was in full swing during the late 1960s. And the book's narrative style, a huge departure from the stately, semi-Jamesian prose of Roth's earlier novels, has often been likened to the stand-up performances of 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce.
uilt-edged insecurity is far more important when it comes to the making--and unmaking--of an American Jew than, say, chicken soup or chopped liver. For guilt is as traditionally American as Thanksgiving Day pumpkin pie and, at the same time, on native grounds as far as Jews are concerned: it was the Jews who originated that mother lode of guilt, the theological concept of original sin; it was a Jew who developed psychoanalysis, that clinical faith based on a belief in the transferability and negotiability of long-term debts and credits in guilt.
So, not surprisingly, a special blend of guilt-power usually fuels the American-Jewish character in fiction, sends him soaring to his manic highs and plummeting to his abject lows. Whether it is Salinger's Seymour or Bellow's Herzog or Malamud's Assistant (who, in fact, becomes a Jew just because of his guilt), almost formula-like the American- Jewish hero goes forth to confront the twisted root-causes of his guilt--only to flood his engine with the paralyzing second thoughts of the self-tormenting neurotic, the fringe-level psychotic. For unable to live with his guilt, he is also unable to conceive of living without it.
But while the American-Jewish novelist has thus had a subject, though he has been searching diligently, questing imaginatively, he has lacked an ideal form. Now, with "Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth ("Goodbye Columbus," "Letting Go," "When She Was Good") has finally come up with the existentially quintessential form for any American-Jewish tale bearing--or baring--guilt. He has done so by simply but brilliantly casting his American Jewish hero--so obviously long in need of therapy--upon a psychoanalyst's couch (the current American-Jewish equivalent of the confessional box) and allowed him to rant and rave and rend himself there. The result is not only one of those bullseye hits in the ever-darkening field of humor, a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect--and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.
Since substantial chunks of "Portnoy's Complaint"--about two-thirds all together--have previously appeared in Esquire, Partisan Review, and New American Review, almost everyone should know by now that Alexander Portnoy, Roth's analysand, is both the worldly 33-year-old Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York (sic) and still another heimishe American-Jewish son and neverman, the victim of an endless childhood eternally wandering toward adulthood (sick). But because form so perfectly follows function Roth manages to evoke new whines out of all the old battles. And though his plot line at first seems as circuitous as a string of wasted 50-minute hours, soon it is evident that every curlicue is a real clue, and the story finally ties together with the epiphanous neatness of any patient's last gestalt.
"These people are unbelievable!" Portnoy complains of his parents early on to the ever-present, always silent analyst. "These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time!" And he proceeds to recap in shticks and bits his urban eat-in-kitchen upbringing by them ("The very first distinction I learned. . .was not night and day or hot and cold, but goyishe and Jewish. . .Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jew! I happen also to be a human being!"
Yet for a lot his railing against his parents--his depiction of that old sentimental favorite, the Jewish Mother, as not only a downright guilt-giver but also a deft castrater; his caricature of her ever-popular silent-as-an-analyst partner, the Jewish father, as an uptight insurance agent and eunuch--Portnoy is still so compulsively ensnarled in the web of his relationship to them that at one moment he whimpers imploringly: "At this late date! Doctor, what should I rid myself of, tell me, the hatred. . .or the love?" Yet at almost the very next moment he bleats forth impassionedly all of his hang-up anguish: "Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke! I am the son in the Jewish joke--only it ain't no joke! Please, who crippled us like this? Who made us so morbid and weak? Why, why are they screaming still, 'Watch out! Don't do it! Alex--no!' and why, alone on my bed in New York, why am I still hopelessly beating my meat?"
On one level, since few writers are as hip as Roth to the nuances of middle-class neuroses or as tuned in with such a show-biz sense of mimicry to the diction of the American Jewish milieu, Portnoy's past comes off as a kind of universal pop boyhood of the forties, with a Jewish accent and comic twist. On another level, since few writers are as explicit as Roth and given the justifiable mechanics implicit in a patient-analyst situation, Portnoy's adolescence is revealed with a rare candor: not only is his gnawing special sense of Jewishness--and guilt--completely detailed, but also his compulsive nonstop masturbatory rites of puberty and his first vain attempts to enter the adult world of heterosexuality are fully annotated.
As Portnoy matures--at least chronologically--he desperately wants to tear off his American-Jewish hair shirt, to let go, to live a life without mother and father, a sex life free and unfettered, without guilt, to be bad in other words ("Because to be bad, Mother," he apostrophizes, "that's the real struggle; to be bad--and enjoy it! That's what makes men of us boys, Mother. . .LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!"). But instead he finds--or his analyst does--that "neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratifications but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration."
However, if sexually stunted, psychologically doomed, Portnoy still makes a bravura run for it. His adventures--and misadventures--involve a penchant for unscenely masturbation, a fetish for untimely fellatio, and even the staging of a mini-orgy in Rome. He also manages to squeeze by a succession of picturesque girl friends whose nicknames are Jonsonian in their humor: The Pumpkin: a full-bodied but flat-chested Middle Westerner, "The first of the Antioch nymphs to go barefoot to class"; The Pilgrim: Supergoy. . .one hundred and fourteen pounds of Republican refinement, and the pertest pair of nipples in all New England"; and the pièce de résistance, the Monkey, who turns out to be more like a sexual lioness.
But what finally drives Portnoy to the analyst's couch is a traumatic sojourn in the State of Israel ("Hey, here we're the WASPS!"). For there he meets his bête noire, his undoer, a Jewish Pumpkin, physically reminiscent of his mother, whom he tries to ravage only to be rendered impotent in the process ("Doctor, maybe other patients dream--with me, everything happens. I have a life without latent content. The dream thing happens! Doctor! I couldn't get it up in the State of Israel! How's that for symbolism, bubi?")
And the novel ends at a beginning, with the straight-man analyst speaking his only line: "So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?"
I feel very much the same way about the ultimate significance of this much ballyhooed, eagerly awaited novel. If viewed as the apotheosis of a genre, the culmination of a fictional quest--and it is, I think, as I've tried to say, the very novel that every American-Jewish writer has been trying to write in one guise or another since the end of World War II--then it may very well be what is called a masterpiece--but so what? It could still also be nothing more than a cul-de-sac.
However, if by this definitive outpouring into a definitive vessel of a recurring theme, thus guilt (screaming, strident, hysterical, hyperbolic, hyperthyroid) has been successfully expatiated, and future American-Jewish novels will be all the quieter, subtler, more reflective and reasoned because of it, then this novel can truly be judged a milestone. For guilt in esthetic terms is every bit as debilitating and destructive and time-consuming a hang-up as in behavioral terms. And it is only by moving out beyond guilt, to the problems and turf implicit in adult independence and sovereignty, that any literature--or genre--can hope to begin to approach maturity.
Opening Line: “Portnoy’s Complaint. Noun. After Alexander Portnoy, born 1933. A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warrant with extreme sexual longings often of a perverse nature.”
Closing Line: “So.” said the doctor, “ Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
Quotes: "And doctor, your honor, whatever your name is, it seems to make no difference how much the poor bastard actually gets, for he is dreaming about tomorrow's pussy even while pumping away at today's!"
Rating: Very Good.