As I think more and more about it, the easier it is to understand just why Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is considered one of his better books, landing on all those Top 100 novels of the 20th Century list. The comical prose, Portnoy’s sexual desire and frustration, and the touches of the self-conscious in the prose all foreshadow what later become so central to all of his work. But on its own, at least in 2008, it just doesn’t really work all that well.
I’m not a person to get offended by bad language; of Carlin’s seven words, I probably use at least three on a daily (if not hourly) basis. Published in 1969, during the sexual revolution (among others), the novel seems to be dated today, likely due to the lack of shock our society has over a lot of the discussed themes and words. While I don’t necessarily hear the word ‘cunt’ all that often, it doesn’t exactly make me flip out.
The novel is narrated in a continuous monologue, by Alexander Portnoy to his psychologist. The narrative jumps all over the history of his life as he relates scenes from throughout, all centering on his central problem: the inability to enjoy all the sexual feelings he experiences, causing him to seek out grater acts of debauchery to satisfy the urges. He frequently uses bawdy and descriptive language to describe these scenes, also hitting on such taboo subjects as incest and prostitution.
The book strikes one as highly autobiographical, which is frequently alluded to by Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, and in Zuckerman’s family’s reactions to Carnovsky, the fictional Portnoy’s Complaint. Zuckerman doesn’t understand why no one believes that he just made all of it up, and to an extent I agree with him. Nothing here is beyond the faculties of most people to create on their own.
In his autobiography The Facts, Roth describes the genesis of the novel being a dinner table comedy routine he performed for friends. More than anything, this feels like a sort of routine gone too long. The joke wears thin long before the book is even half over. Critics have compared the narrative to those performed by Lenny Bruce, which is interesting though I am unfamiliar with Bruce’s work.
One interesting note: the theme of indignation is addressed here by quoting the national anthem of China. This forms a central component to his latest novel, Indignation, and I am sure there is a paper there for someone to write.
Portnoy’s Complaint may be essential reading for those trying to understand Roth, for it does mark a turning point in his fiction. However, for one just wanting to enjoy a novel by the man, I’d start with The Ghost Writer. Read out of context, it wouldn’t surprise me if more people of my generation found the novel unsatisfying because we’ve already become inured to its shock value.