Saturday, December 13, 2014

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

"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!"
No, this is not a book
on public relations
I first read Portnoy's Complaint during my freshman year of college; not for a class, mind you, but out of my own curiosity.  (On July 14 of 1763 Johnson told Boswell that "a plan of study" was a waste of time, because you won't get any good out of what you read "as a task," and I have certainly felt this to be true in my own life.)  I can still recall puzzling over Portnoy's Complaint's last few pages, in which the narrator's ranting includes a reference to his model Hawker Hurricane, a symbol of his youthful patriotism and decency, as I sat in a huge auditorium where I was one of the multitude taking an intro course on psychology.  I spent most of these sessions looking out the window at the squirrels gamboling about the Rutgers campus.

Late last week I borrowed a copy of the 1967 novel from a nearby university library. This copy was previously read by (I presume) an Asian student, and is full of marginalia in what I take to be Chinese or Japanese script.  It is interesting to consider that there may be some businessman or government official over in Beijing or Yokohama whose view of the United States and/or the Jewish people is strongly colored by his or her close reading of this novel that chronicles a young man's use of masturbation aids vegetable, animal and mineral.

Portnoy's Complaint is written in the form of thirty-something Alexander Portnoy's confessions to a psychologist, and rather than a straightforward narrative, consists of a series of vignettes.  In fact it is quite like a stand up comedy routine: jokes about constipation and jerking off; jokes about Jewish guilt and stifling nagging parents (the ignorant bigoted father who works himself to the bone and resents his employers, the self-important mother who brags about how clean her house is) who always ask why you don't call, don't visit, don't give them grand kids; jokes about trouble with the opposite sex. There's even a joke about how it is (allegedly) illegal to tear that tag off your mattress.

Roth invites you to compare the novel to a comedy monologue, titling the last chapter "Punch Line" and referring in the text to Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman and Milton Berle.  Young Alex Portnoy, in fact, cracks up his friends and family with his imitations of characters from the Allen and Benny radio shows, and, when as an adult he is unhappy about his life as a childless bachelor, Portnoy imagines the ideal life to be sitting around with his kids, listening to Allen and Benny on the radio.

Fortunately for the reader, Roth is really quite funny, and the quasi-comic routine format works like a charm.  I smiled and laughed again and again at the stories and jokes Portnoy tells his head shrinker.
The not-quite linear plot of the novel follows Portnoy, a highly intelligent (first in his class year after year after year) Jewish boy who grows up in urban Northern New Jersey and becomes a lawyer who dedicates his career to helping "the people."  He moves to New York City and works for the city as the Assistant Commissioner for the Commission on Human Opportunity.  Our narrator's relationships with his parents, his relationships with women, and especially his sex life take center stage.  Perhaps due to psychological problems resulting from his relationships with is mother and father, Portnoy is obsessed with "cunt," especially that of "shikses." As a youth he masturbates furiously, employing all sorts of weird complements to this activity, and conducting this self-abuse in some of the riskiest places (on a bus going over the Pulaski Skyway sitting next to a shikse in a tartan skirt).  As an adult he is totally unable to settle down with one woman, no matter how intelligent, charming or beautiful, and instead moves from one woman to the next, boldly propositioning women he sees on the street.

One of the women he picks up on the streets of Manhattan is a beautiful ignoramus from West Virginia, a twenty-nine-year-old fashion model nicknamed "the Monkey" because she once indulged the urge to eat a banana during an odd erotic encounter. The Monkey wants to settle down, marry and make a family with Portnoy, and, on a trip to Vermont, Portnoy feels he may be falling in love with her.  But can a Jewish leftist genius really marry a gentile who can only barely read, even if they share a fascination with sexual perversion?

Portnoy's Complaint is a lot of fun.  Of course, part of the appeal of the novel for me is its milieu: Northern New Jersey, where I grew up (the town I lived in as a child even merits a mention!), and New York, where I lived the interesting part of my life.  I hadn't thought about the Pulaski Skyway in months, and I was pleased to be reminded of this tremendous edifice, one of the "monuments to man's ingenuity and ambition" I was always telling skeptical in-laws and rural and suburban naysayers abounded in the New York area.  But the novel has a broad appeal; most of us have parents or parental figures we have complicated feelings about, don't we?  Most of us have complex and mixed feelings about sex, yes?  The position of Jews in American society, the feelings of Jews towards gentiles and vice versa, are a major theme of the book, but, in this multicultural society, don't all of us belong to some ethnic or cultural, regional or class group, that looks at (and is looked upon by) the other components of American society with a mixture of curiosity, envy, fear, and/or disdain?

The novel is also full of clever observations and cunning depictions; here is one from early in the book:
This is a man who somewhere along the line got the idea that the basic unit of meaning in the English language is the syllable.  So no word he pronounces has less than three of them, not even the word God.  You should hear the song and dance he makes out of Israel.  For him it's as long as refrigerator!  And do you remember him at my bar mitzvah, what a field day he had with Alexander Portnoy?  Why, Mother, did he keep calling me by my whole name?  Why, except to impress all you idiots in the audience with all those syllables!  And it worked!  
Do I need to catalog the myriad ways people might be offended by this novel?  Point out that it is worthy of a blizzard of trigger warnings?  Portnoy wonders if the sleeping blonde sitting next to him on the bus is merely faking, hoping he will grope her; more than once he tries to physically pressure women into surrendering to his desires. Portnoy promulgates the theory that a stifling mother is what turns a boy into a homosexual.  We won't get into what Portnoy's parents think of "schvartzes," but here is what Portnoy senior has to say about my own people (well, on my paternal grandfather's side):
A Polack's day, my father has suggested to me, isn't complete until he has dragged his big dumb feet across the bones of a Jew.

Of course I am recommending that you read Portnoy's Complaint.  Roth is one of those American literary masters with a Pulitzer Prize, multiple volumes in the Library of America, and all that, one of those guys you are supposed to read.  But nobody would consider this book a bore or a difficult challenge, like we can expect some to find Nabokov or Bellow or Melville or (parts of) Henry Miller; Portnoy's Complaint moves along quickly and is full of laughs.  The novel also offers some kind of insight into mid-century Jewish-American life, and laughing and learning about how other people have lived are two of the big reasons we read books, aren't they?

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