Book review: Portnoy’s Complaint

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth

Why is a little turbulence so beyond my means? Why must the least deviation from respectable conventions cause me such inner hell? When I hate those fucking conventions! When I know better than the taboos! Doctor, my doctor, what do you say, LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID! Liberate this nice Jewish boy’s libido, will you please? Raise the prices if you have to—I’ll pay anything!

A hilarious little book by the American novelist Philip Roth, who only passed away in early 2018. The titular “Portnoy’s Complaint” is supposedly a psychosexual disorder that certain individuals can suffer from if they’ve grown up under the thumb of neurotic, overbearing Jewish parents (I mean, who hasn’t?), which manifests in wild acts of “exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus”.

Our brave protagonist/patient is one Alexander Portnoy, a deeply intelligent and brilliant 30-something ‘Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York’. In a series of unhinged monologues to his psychotherapist, Portnoy reveals his struggles with his American Jewish identity and confesses to a legion of sexual transgressions.

Since a young boy, Portnoy has been burdened with wild sexual fantasies about gentile girls, as well as a rampant addiction to masturbation. And oh boy, does the main character like talking about the art of onanism: He vividly describes what it’s like to accidentally masturbate into your eye. He provides an emotional report of the time he masturbated into a baseball glove at a burlesque show. And (in perhaps the most famous sequence in the book) he mournfully confesses to having even masturbated into a piece of liver in the kitchen—which his family then unwittingly ate.

Unsurprisingly, the book was considered quite shocking when it was first published and was even subject to importation bans by the Australian government due to its obscene content. According to Wikipedia, Penguin Books, the Australian publisher, dodged the ban by having copies covertly printed in Sydney and “stored in fleets of moving trucks to avoid seizure under state obscenity laws”. Stay classy, ‘Straya.

The writing is clever, free-flowing, riddled with Yiddish slang, and dotted with hilarious reflections on American Jewish life (I did not know, for instance, that mah-jong is considered an iconic Jewish game). It’s also a great book to read to other people. There is an excellent lilt and cadence to much the writing. Try reciting to your friends and family the sequence where brave Portnoy, after he has snuck into a burlesque show, observes the following:

The big thing at the Empire is hats. Down the aisle from me a fellow-addict fifty years my senior is dropping his load in his hat. His hat, Doctor! Oy, I’m sick. I want to cry. Not into your hat, you shvantz, you got to put that thing on your head! You’ve got to put it on now and go back outside and walk around downtown Newark dropping gissum down your forehead. How will you eat your lunch in that hat!

Simply beautiful.

It’s also a story that I personally sympathised with insofar as it’s about a young member of a minority group struggling to push back their home culture in order to fit into a western country and interface with Anglo-Protestant society. (Doctor, doctor! I too had neurotic parents who tossed a stew of conflicting messages into my head when I desperately wanted to fit in. Do I exhibit the same rampant psychosexual dysfunctions as Portnoy? Not to the same extent, I don’t think!)

There are two final observations I’d like to make. The first is that a good portion of the story takes place around the Second World War period, yet the Holocaust is barely mentioned and, at one point, is even treated by the narrator as a bit of a joke. This unusual omission was a great surprise to me. Going out on a thin limb, I suspect it was deliberate given that the narrative culminates with Portnoy visiting Israel and being exposed to contemptuous Israeli attitudes towards the greater Jewish diaspora.

The second observation is that of everyone’s dreaded m-word: Misogyny. The controversy surrounding the alleged misogyny in Roth’s books is inescapable, particularly in this day and age. Regardless of where you sit on this debate, it must, at the very least, be acknowledged. As entertaining as the sexist diatribes in Portnoy’s Complaint are, they are still sexist diatribes that reveal some monstrous feelings towards women. How much of this is the narrator and how much of this is the novelist? This book toes the line just enough, in my opinion, though whether the patina cracks in his later novels I’m not sure.

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