Portnoy's Complaint: the novel that made Philip Roth a household name

Portnoy’s Complaint

  • Rank:  #39
  • Author:  Philip Roth  (b. 1933)
  • Published:  1969
  • Publisher:  Random House
  • Pages:  309
  • First Line:  “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”
  • Last Lines:  “So [said the doctor].  Now vee may perhaps to begin.  Yes?”
  • ML Edition:  1982 tan hardcover – hard to find
  • Film:  1972 – never seen, supposed to be quite bad
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #52; All-TIME List
  • First Read:  Spring, 1994

The Novel:  There comes a point half-way through Portnoy’s Complaint where you will find a line drawn in the sand.  If you’ve made it this far, you’ve already gone through 150 pages of masturbation and mother fixation and general craziness.  But then, you find a new level.  Portnoy, in the depths of his confession, mentions how he once masturbated against a piece of liver that he then put back in the freezer.  Hours later, it was cooked and sitting on the table.  Far beyond the Roald Dahl story where the wife kills her husband with the ham, then cooks it and feeds it to the investigating policemen, Portnoy has gone somewhere that never could have been expected.  “Now you know the worst thing I have ever done.  I fucked my own family’s dinner.”

I am reminded of two other hysterically funny moments.  The first is in Annie Hall, where Alvy kisses the girls and claims that it’s not his fault: “I never had a latency period!”  If Portnoy had a latency period then he more than makes up for it in his teenage years.  I also recall the great Roger Ebert anecdote of being in an elevator with Mel Brooks a few months after The Producers came out.  A lady came in and turned to Brooks and said “I have to tell you Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.”  “Lady,” Brooks replied, “It rose below vulgarity.”

And that’s what Portnoy’s Complaint does.  It, like The Producers, recognizes that if you are going to deal with a subject that is in bad taste, then there is no point in attempting to make it tasteful (thus we have this quote:”Though a world of matted handkerchiefs and crumpled Kleenex and stained pajamas, I moved my raw and swollen penis, perpetually in dread that my loathsomeness would be discovered by someone stealing upon me just as I was in the frenzy of dropping my load.”).  You can make it good – and indeed, The Producers is an excellent film that continues to be loved over 40 years later.  Likewise, Portnoy’s Complaint was a cultural milestone – the book that everybody suddenly had to read, and decades later, was listed among the top novels of the century by both the Modern Library and Time Magazine.  It’s funny not just for its one-liners (“I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off – the sticky evidence is everywhere!”), not just for its cut-to-the-bone observations of the modern Jewish family (“Good Christ, a Jewish man with parents is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die!”), but for the sheer audacity of it (“LET’S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!”).

It might not be for you.  It’s definitely not for everyone.  But it can not be dismissed simply because so much of it deals with sex (or the self-supplied substitute for the lack thereof).  It is a smart, perceptive novel, alternating between those moments of familial observation (“In that ferocious and self-annihilating way in which so many Jewish men of his generation served their families, my father served my mother, my sister Hannah, but particularly me.”), or cultural observation through the lens of humor (“Even in the Chinese restaurant, where the Lord has lifted the ban on pork dishes for the obedient children of Israel, the eating of lobster Cantonese is considered by God (Whose mouthpiece on earth, in matter pertaining to food, is my Mom) to be totally out of the question.”), or even of social stratification between the races in the land where we are all supposedly equal, again through the lens of humor (“What I’m saying, Doctor, is that I don’t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick up their backgrounds – as though through fucking I will discover America.”).  But it also contains much of the supposed self-loathing that Roth has always been pegged with (“How monstrous I feel, for she sheds her tears for six million, or so I think, while I shed mine only for myself.”).

But most of all, it is God. Damn. Funny.  Every page of it.  And it concludes with a ferocious monologue, building up upon itself, almost like the final stream-of-consciousness conclusion to Ulysses, that makes the pay-off, the punch-line, such a breath of relief.  Now vee may perhaps to begin indeed.