19 May 2006

Forget Portnoy, here’s my complaint

I’ve always wanted to read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I read a lot, and I’ve always been in honors English classes, so my reading materials have typically been more advanced. As a result, I’ve seen many, many references to Portnoy’s Complaint. Recently, I read a book where the main character quoted Portnoy. I think the author of that book never actually read Portnoy’s Complaint, because – as I have discovered - the quote is so very much out of context.

Anyway, I finally decided to read it. Explain to me why, in all my 40-something years, NO ONE has ever described this book as pornography. Smut. If I were a normal person, I would have brought it back to the library after the first two chapters. But no, I have to – HAVE TO – know how it ends. What is the point of all this garbage? Why does Mr. Roth dedicate an entire book to a character’s session with his shrink? To this character discussing how his Oedipal urges play out? It’s disgusting reading, but I’ve never been able to give up on a book, no matter how much I hate it. It’s that “just in case” factor: “just in case” it turns out okay in the end, “just in case” the ending results in something really interesting.

To be fair, the book is brilliantly written. Roth throws in some ingenious lines and marvelous dialogue that are stunning. His use of the language (not the dirty stuff) had me frequently stopping and re-reading because I was so taken with his twist of words. And then I feel sad that he chose to use that brilliance for what really amounts to a trashy novel (and mind you, I am not a prude!). And I feel a bit dirty being exposed to this stuff every day in reading this book.

So “just stop!” I hear you all yelling. But I can’t. I need to keep reading. I must. Know. How. It. Ends. Please don’t take my Portnoy away.


At 19/5/06 11:49 p.m., Anonymous jeanette1ca said...

National Public Radio's Fresh Air program had an interview with Phillip Roth in which he discussed the book and his reasons for writing about the "dirty stuff". You can hear the recorded interview at

The discussion on Portnoy's Complaint starts around minute 19.

At 22/5/06 4:55 a.m., Blogger projgen said...

Thanks for that link. It was very interesting to listen to his reasoning and some of the background. Although, it seems more like the setting of the psych's office was a device to enable to write the "dirty stuff." He wanted to write smutty, and needed a permissible way to do it. I wonder how many men would, in that setting, actually speak like that, using that kind of language.

My disappointment is not so much in the story line, and the things that Portnoy did, but rather the language and the *way* it was described. He (Roth) was at his best when Portnoy was going off on a tirade about his family, and limiting the language, as opposed to scenes where he sounded more like a 16-year old writing a letter to Penthouse, using as many dirty words as he possibly can merely for the shock value.

But then, perhaps that was his point?

At 22/5/06 5:27 a.m., Blogger projgen said...

And I also disagree - for myself - with his comment that most people were shocked at the emotional brutality of the book. That may be true for some people, or most people, and probably especially for people at the time the book was printed. I wasn't shocked by it, I was moved by it. I understood why Portnoy could have such feelings of fear as an adult. The depth of his despair was brutal and quite enthralling.

I also take umbrage that he feels that people were shocked by "all this takes place in a Jewish family?" It might have fed into readers' existing stereotypes of overbearing Jewish mothers and wimpy Jewish fathers, but it's difficult to imagine readers being shocked by what already existed in people's minds.

It's also interesting that he kept referring to Portnoy's Complaint as a "comedy" - while it has some truly humourous moments, I never once thought of it in terms of a comedy. I kept hoping the interviewer would ask him why he felt it was comedic.

Thanks again for that link!

At 22/5/06 5:44 p.m., Anonymous LC said...

I've never read it, but on principle I had to laugh at your "it's smut, but I can't put it down - because it's a *book*".

I am exactly the same way. I've read lots of "garbage" that way, but also some really good stuff, starting with "Little Women" when I was 8 because a well-meaning adult relative gave it to me as a birthday present!

. . . so? was it worth it in the end? (I won't ask if you'd recommend it ;) )

At 23/5/06 12:46 a.m., Blogger projgen said...

hee, I've only ever put one book and ironically, that was "Exodus" (the Leon Uris book, not the chapter of the Torah). I'm not sure why, but I just could never get past the first 20 pages.

Oooh, "Litle Women" at 8? Must have been eye-opening! As for "Portnoy" being worth it? I don't know. I hated "When She Was Good" and I would never recommend it to anyone. But I don't feel that way about Portnoy. I don't know that I *would* recommend it, but I certainly wouldn't tell you to never read it.

I guess if one could handle all the "smut" (without becoming inured to it), and bear in mind that most of the adult characters are stereotypes, maybe being exposed to the character's anguish is worthwhile. Recognizing anguish and vulnerability in a person can make us more sensitive and more aware of how someone who appears so successful and put together on the outside, can be suffering so on the inside. And that can help us think more kindly of people, and perhaps be a little more tolerant and understanding.

So yeah, maybe it is worth reading.

At 23/5/06 5:46 a.m., Anonymous Truly Tested said...

have I lost my mind or is this the book where he got off on a slab of meat? somehow that image never left my mind all these years later although I can't remember what type of meat it is!

At 24/5/06 1:44 a.m., Blogger projgen said...

truly - er, yeah. Liver. Which they later ate for dinner. Can't imagine why that wouldn't leave your mind.


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