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Book Review: Portnoy’s Complaint

portnoys complaintPhilip Roth is considered one of America’s greatest fiction writer’s of the latter part of thetwentieth century. While he initially published a handful of books that won him critics’ esteem,it was the hugely controversial Portnoy’s Complaint that sky-rocketed him to infamy. Although only technically illegal in Australia for a short period of time, Portnoy’s Complaint was banned from several libraries in America when it was first published in the 1960s.

Portnoy’s Complaint is the first and only of Roth’s novels that I’ve read, and it left me wantingmore. For those readers looking for a protagonist with whom you can completely empathize, for a hero who will redeem your faith in humanity, this is not the book for you. It’s an angry book; it’s a stomach-turning in its treatment of the more unsavory aspects of life–compulsive masturbation being a recurring theme. The book is narrated as a monologue by Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst Dr. Spielvogel, and begins with a clinical definition of “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”..

Here, in a nutshell, Roth presents us with the novel’s themes.

Summary of Portnoy’s Complaint

Alexander Portnoy is the son of Jewish immigrants living in a predominantly Jewish area in New Jersey. As a child, Portnoy recounts, his relationship with his family was strained. Although Portnoy excels in school, his father constantly criticizes him for back talking and disrespectingJewish traditions, while his mother is a neurotically overbearing woman convinced of Portnoy’s inability to do anything for himself. Criticism aside, both parents have placed their future hopes
and dreams on the success of their son. As the book progresses, we get a glimpse of Portnoy’s present life as a high-standing Commissioner for New York City’s Commission on Human Opportunity.

Despite the success of his career, Portnoy is terribly unhappy and focuses almost exclusively on his physical fantasies. He describes his relationship with Monkey, a young woman from West Virginia with whom he begins a predominantly physical relationship. Throughout the book, Portnoy digresses into details of his past, and discusses previous relationships, all of which end in failure. Portnoy despairs of his inability to love anyone. Throughout the book, he tries to reconcile his political and social idealism with his general disgust of himself and others.

Although in many ways, Portnoy’s Complaint is a heart-wrenchingly sad book, it’s also absolutely hilarious. Roth claims the book began as a sort of comic routine he’d perform for dinner guests, in which he’d satirize the Jewish immigrant experience, of which he was a part. What I enjoyed most about the book was precisely its tragicomic rendering of the life of one man who represents the angst and contradictions of the turbulent 60s.

Time Magazine rated Portnoy’s Complaint one of the best 100 English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, which speaks to the book’s timelessness. Even though the novel is set in a very particular time and place, and even though it tells the tale of a man’s struggles with his specifically Jewish identity, readers of all stripes can commiserate with the central character’s plight of trying to outgrow his family and come into his own.

Roth doesn’t paint the prettiest picture of life in America in the 60s, but he does so in such a way as to give us a deeper understanding of the darker side of the human condition. And you won’t be able to put the book down without laughing out loud the whole time.


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