Review Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

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.

 

 

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