Structurally, Portnoy’s Complaint is a continuous monologue as narrated by its speaker, Alexander Portnoy, to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel; Roth later explained that 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 me to bring into my fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that […] in another fictional environment would have struck me as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene.”
Portnoy is “a lust-ridden, mother addicted young Jewish bachelor”, and the narration weaves through time describing scenes from each stage of his life; every recollection in some way touches upon his central dilemma: his inability to enjoy the fruits of his sexual adventures even as his extreme libidinal urges force him to seek release in ever more creative (and, in his mind, degrading and shameful) acts of eroticism; also, much of his dilemma is that “his sense of himself, his past, and his ridiculous destiny is so fixed.” Roth is not subtle about defining this as the main theme of his book. On the first page of the novel, one finds this clinical definition of “Portnoy’s Complaint”, as if taken from a manual on sexual dysfunction:
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 …
The title also alludes to the common literary form of complaint, such as “A Lover’s Complaint”, which typically presents the speaker’s comments on being a spurned lover.
Other topics touched on in the book include the assimilation experiences of American Jews, their relationship to the Jews of Israel, and the pleasures and perils the narrator sees as inherent in being the son of a Jewish family.
Portnoy’s Complaint is also emblematic of the times during which it was published. Most obviously, the book’s sexual frankness was both a product of and a reflection on the sexual revolution that was in full swing during the late 1960s. And the book’s narrative style, a huge departure from the stately, semi-Jamesian prose of Roth’s earlier novels, has often been likened to the stand-up performances of 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce.
The novel is notable for its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver which Portnoy’s mother later serves for dinner.
From Publishers Weekly
The 25th-anniversary edition of Roth’s classic novel features a new afterword by the author.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
“Roth is the bravest writer in the United States. He’s morally brave, he’s politically brave. And Portnoy is part of that bravery.” —Cynthia Ozick, Newsday
“Deliciously funny…absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious… a brilliantly vivid reading experience.”–New York Times Book Review
“Simply one of the two or three funniest works in American fiction.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Touching as well as hilariously lewd…. Roth is vibrantly talented…as marvelous a mimic and fantasist as has been produced by the most verbal group in human history.” —Alfred Kazin, New York Review of Books
Top customer reviews
I admit that this book was a random purchase. I had been dealing with insomnia and I thought if I purchased a book of which I had no prior knowledge or information I could just open it up in bed at 2:30 AM and in just a paragraph or two would be lulled to sleep. Mistake.
I ended up laughing out loud and waking my wife.
Loved the book. Especially the nostalgia and sense of being there, real-time, New Jersey in the late ‘60s. Immersive.
This is my second go-around with Philip Roth. My first read was ‘Ghost Writer’ for a Holocaust literature course. After a recommendation from my professor for a book to utilize for my Master’s thesis (the depiction of psychiatric care in 20th century American literature), I can safely say that my professor knows a good book when he reads one.
Alexander Portnoy is, at times, completely annoying, yet there is something in his complaint that evokes a degree of sympathy and, for some, empathy. Sure, he’s got more than enough to make even Freud’s head spin, but he isn’t wholly detestable. Roth writes this character so convincingly that I imagine the Doctor’s reactions as he is sitting there listening to Portnoy ramble on. The issues involved in growing up Jewish dominate the novel, but there are multiple fascinating themes co-occurring as Portnoy’s story develops.
If you don’t mind reading about penises and vaginas on every page and can tolerate an often abundant usage of Caps to emphasize Portnoy’s mental duress, you should consider picking up this witty and thought-evoking read.
Not since Catch-22 have I read a book that could be so emotionally moving and so utterly hilarious to read. Roth’s style is amazingly addictive, so that you feel like you have to keep reading to see what bizarre things happens next.
The main character of this story, Alexander Portnoy, is one of the most relatable characters I’ve read. At his core, he is a teenager in rebellion against his overbearing parents, trying to reconcile the societal pressure he feels to live up to their standards with a desire to have fun. Everyone has been Alexander Portnoy at one point in their lives. It’s in the ridiculous ways that Alex tries to rebel that give this book it’s edge.
Let it not be said that Phillip Roth is a shy writer. Portnoy’s Complaint describes in exact detail the sexual escapades of our hero, both for the laughs and for the drama. While they aren’t for everyone, I couldn’t stop laughing and reading.
I recommend this book to anyone, especially college students going out into the world.