Saturday, 4 June 2011

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (Random House 1969)

Philip Roth's fourth book, Portnoy's Complaint was the one that made his reputation for the man who is now the newly crowned Booker International Prize winner and who has been long touted for the Nobel Prize for literature. The book is a flowing and humorous monologue by Alexander Portnoy to his virtually silent psychoanalyst. It is a venerable tour de force of New Jersey Jewish neurosis and guilt.

Portnoy's complaint is an odyssey of sexual addiction. His early onanistic habit kept him locked in the toilet so frequently that he had to invent diarrhoea as an excuse, for which his high-strung mother assumes is caused by his eating fries instead of coming home to a hearty meal and which in one scene his eternally constipated father, jealous of Alex's free-flowing bowels, hammers at the door demanding to see evidence in the toilet bowl (a very funny scene which is parodied in the Simpsons where a young Krusty the Clown is caught practising clowning in the toilet by his overbearing Rabbi father).

As Portnoy matures, well at least ages, we see a succession of girlfriends and ever more bizarre sexual antics. A full-bodied but flat chested woman he calls the pumpkin, an emotionally stilted but sexually adventurous woman he calls the monkey and finally a Jewish woman he meets in Israel who resembles his mother but whom finds him somewhat repugnant.

It could be very easy to dismiss this book as just literary pornography but Roth uses sex to examine deeper themes, history, culture, identity, family. Themes he continues to develop in his later works such as American Pastoral and the Plot Against America, all told from Jewish characters living in or around New Jersey. I'd say for this reason that he is almost an American Mordecai Richler just a damn site dirtier.

I said that the psychoanalyst was almost silent, he has one line, the last one: 'So [said the doctor]. Now vee may to perhaps begin. Yes?'. Funny but don't let anyone read it over your shoulder!