The blurb on the back of this edition proclaims: “Portnoy’s Complaint must surely be the funniest book about sex ever written”. It was released to a storm of controversy, the pearl-clutchers taking issue with his explicit descriptions of sex and masturbation using various props (including, believe it or not, a piece of liver that the protagonist’s mother later cooked and served for dinner). All of this is to say that Portnoy’s Complaint sounded very, very promising to me.
This is Philip Roth’s trademark novel, the “humorous monologue of a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor”, focusing on themes of sexual desire and frustration, full to the brim with comedic prose and self-conscious literariness. I actually started reading it the very same week that Philip Roth died, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get to it sooner. Portnoy’s Complaint turned Roth into a literary celebrity of sorts, and he went on to win pretty much every major award there is. I actually read a New York Times article in the weeks following his death that described how he would wait by the phone before each Nobel announcement, waiting on the call to say he’d finally won… and his devastation every time the phone didn’t ring. It was an odd combination of endearing and heartbreaking.
His literary brilliance and desperation for critical acclaim aside, I’m not sure Roth was all that endearing as a person. I read, for instance, that his progress in writing Portnoy’s Complaint was very slow – he claimed to be suffering from writer’s block, which he attributed to his ex-wife and the “unpleasant notion” that any royalties earned from the novel would have to be shared with her. As if that weren’t gross enough, she was killed in a car accident in 1968, and Roth’s writer’s block magically lifted. Immediately after the funeral, he made a beeline for a writer’s retreat, and promptly completed the manuscript. Ew. That story makes me want to shake him and shout “STOP BLAMING WOMEN FOR YOUR BULLSHIT!”… but I digress.
Roth defines Portnoy’s Complaint as “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”. Surely, we can all relate 😉 The book is presented as a monologue as told to a psychiatrist, and I think it was very clever to position it that way. Had it read as a simple conversation with a generic “reader”, or a diary entry or some such nonsense, Portnoy’s pontificating would have been much harder to stomach. In Roth’s own words, the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session was motivated by “the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation” which would “permit [him] to bring into [his] fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that […] in another fictional environment would have struck [him] as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene.” So, yeah. The dude knew what he was doing.
The blurb promises, as I mentioned, a comedy about sex – and yes, there is a lot of wanking (which is, in itself, very funny). But mostly Portnoy’s Complaint is about the narrator’s parents and growing up Jewish in mid-20th century America. The monologue darts back and forth through the various stages of his life, describing scenes and experiences that all relate back to his “complaint” (as it were): his inability to let loose and properly enjoy sex, no matter how creative and, erm, kinky he gets. The thrust of his problem is that his mother did a real number on him, and the Jews have had a rough trot in general. I guess there’s probably a greater point in that, about how we experience our problems and what we think are our problems aren’t our real problems, or something… but I’m not here to dissect all that. Honestly, I read Portnoy’s Complaint for the lols, and Roth has plenty of those to offer.
(And the ending is so good! I’d imagine there are a lot of readers who have rolled their eyes and groaned, but I say: boo to them! It effectively turns the whole book into the set-up for a joke, the final words being the punchline. And if that doesn’t convince you to pick up Portnoy’s Complaint and give it a go, I don’t know what will!)
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, given the above, that Portnoy’s Complaint has a glorious history of being banned and challenged across the reading world. In 1969, it was declared a “prohibited import” in Australia. Penguin Books circumvented the ban by having copies printed in Sydney, and storing them in fleets of moving trucks to avoid seizure under state obscenity laws. Attempts to prosecute the publishers for this literary subterfuge were successful in some states, but not in others. Eventually, in 1971, Roth’s work was removed from the federal banned content list, but not before “the Portnoy matter” (as it was known) became a watershed in Australian censorship law. It marks the last occasion on which the censorship of a literary publication came before the courts here.
My tl;dr summary of Portnoy’s Complaint: a repressed Jewish guy whacks his psychiatrist over the head (repeatedly!) with his Oedipal complex. It’s funny, engaging, and charming – perhaps a little too dirty for some folks, but that’s how I like ’em. Reading Portnoy’s Complaint is like eating apple pie and ice cream for dinner: you could make an argument that there’s some nutritional value in doing it, but ultimately it’s just indulgent and fun for grown-ups.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Portnoy’s Complaint:
- “I don’t know why I find this surprising given the title of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but there sure is a lot more complaining in this book than I’m used to reading. Also, I guess bagging on one’s family and coming up with 200 euphemisms for masturbation was revolutionary in 1967, but 40 years on and it’s beyond “quaint”. Perhaps our present day society has caught up with and surpassed this level of “lurid?” Regardless, I couldn’t finish it.” – Warren Ernst
- “great if you like Roth” – jane
- “Ugh. I don’t get why people like this. Funny, sure, but it reads like a more scatological version of a Woody Allen movie.” – JessiPlaysJazz
- “I think I can see what the author was trying to tell, but as a gay man I found all the detailed descriptions of hetero sex to be off-putting.” – T. Dreiling
- “If you like books that are just about masturbation, this is for you.” – J.F. -Lackey
- “After hearing a lot of good reviews of the book ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ I checked out the internet and fount the book for sale on ‘Amazon’.
Whilst I wouldn’t rate the book itself as highly as others I was very happy with the transaction.” – Flexi