Sunday, October 08, 2006

Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint
Philip Roth

So who hasn't heard of Philip Roth? After hearing about how great he is (due to his most recent publication, Everyman), I decided to start my introduction with Portnoy's Complaint. It was definitely an interesting read.

Did I like it? I honestly don't know. I don't even know how many stars I'll rate it at the end of this review. Portnoy's Complaint was laugh-out-loud funny in parts, touching in others, and highly disturbing in still others--and yet, it simply became too much. Allow me to try and explain.

Alexander Portnoy narrates his complaint as he struggles to find the source of his problems. Most likely, his Jewish upbringing is to blame. His major complaint, as I see it, is that he is "torn by desires repugnant to [his] conscience" and has a "conscience repugnant to [his] desires." Thus he spends about 270 pages bitching to his psychotherapist about how he needs every single (insert expletive for female genitalia here) that walks past him, only to hate himself for it afterward.

Now, I consider myself a liberal person: I like profanity. I use it a lot; it's like salt and pepper on a bland meal. However, I remember a time in my unfortunate childhood when I, not understanding the impact of a well-timed f-bomb, threw the word around like so much luggage in the hands of an angry airport employee. This book reminded me a lot of that period. And the vulgarity! After the fifth episode in which Alex either gets laid or jerks off, I began to find it a bit gratuitous. Like, "Look, America! I wrote the word pussy! I'm a real bad ass!" And, yes, Alex, I get that you like to masturbate, but I really don't need more than one chapter about it, ok?

I found the best character in the book to be Alex's mother, Sophie. If you enjoyed Jerry's parents in Seinfeld, you'll love those scenes in which Alex's parents figure strongly. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is devoted more to sex with The Monkey (long story, and not a very interesting one, either) than funny familial anecdotes.

Basically Portnoy's Complaint is 270 pages of Alex bitching about his parents, his upbringing, his women, his penis, and the guilt he feels over all of the former. Had the book stopped at page 200, I probably would have remained entertained. But how many times can one hear the same joke told over and over before it loses its appeal?

Bibliolatry Scale: 3 out of 6 stars

5 comments:

Kristin Dodge said...

Ha! Thanks for the warning.

Maxine Weiss said...

It was groundbreaking for the time.

That's, perhaps, not the Philip Roth to start with.

You should've started with the Pulitzer..."American Pastoral".

Roth is great.

Peace, Maxine

Bibliolatrist said...

True, I should have acknowledged that I do know Portnoy's Complaint was groundbreaking for its time, and I can see how it would be so. And, while I found it a bit tedious for me today, I'm not writing Roth off as an author. Two-thirds of the book were great to read. I'll add American Pastoral to the batch - thanks!

Hoyaheel said...

"Groundbreaking for its time" doesn't necessarily have to translate to "timeless", though, right? Something could be groundbreaking for its time but 20 years later, not have stood that test of time. I think great literature stands the test of time. I do not think ALL literature does.

I wasn't terribly fond of Portnoy's Complaint either--and I read it at a much younger age--when I was really into that vulgarity and "groundbreaking" rebellion.....

Bibliolatrist said...

Excellent point, Hoyaheel.

And I still maintain that Roth is a good writer, even if I wasn't crazy about *this* novel. Zadie Smith had the same effect on me -- mediocre book, good writer.