Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint

More than a decade has passed since my first reading of Portnoy’s Complaint, and while much of that initial experience remains vivid in my memory, new discoveries have heightened my appreciation for Philip Roth’s most controversial novel. When it first appeared in 1969, it caused a minor scandal, first for its lurid sex and masturbatory fantasies, and second, for its unflattering depiction of America’s Jewish communities. The novel is narrated from the first-person perspective by Alexander Portnoy, who is speaking to a therapist about his deepening sexual perversion and locating the source of his anxiety in his relationship with his mother.

The novel’s early scenes are of Alexander’s childhood, and these are among the finest comic scenes in American fiction, worthy rivals to anything produced by Mark Twain or Joseph Heller. Sophie Portnoy, Alex’s mother, dominates the novel from the opening sentence: “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.” She has accomplished this imbedding via a relentless and contradictory mix of blame and praise, together with a forensic interest in the smallest details of her son’s life. “For mistakes she checked my sums; for holes, my socks; for dirt, my nails, my neck, every seam and crease of my body.” When Alex succeeds – when, for example, he brings home a perfect report card – he is Einstein incarnate, a prince, a mensch, a perfect little boy. But when he fails, when he makes even the slightest mistake or transgression, he is cast aside like a leper, irredeemable in his mother’s eyes. “[…] there is a year or so in my life when not a month goes by that I don’t do something so inexcusable that I am told to pack a bag and leave.” When direct punishment and condemnation don’t work, she opts to use guilt instead, and to such a degree that “emotional abuse” doesn’t seem adequate. One tactic, for example, involves telling her son that his father is going for a “tumour test,” implying that he is sick, at death’s door, and so can’t Alex be a good boy for his dying father?

Alex’s father is also something of a comic figure, an insurance salesman bitter about his station in life, resentful of the “goys” who run his company and whom he blames for failing to promote him, and he lives his life in such a permanent state of anxiety that he’s afflicted with a terrible and seemingly incurable constipation, and so many of his son’s memories of his father involve him on the toilet, speaking through a closed bathroom door, or desperately downing prunes and prune juice.

Surrounded by such neuroses, his life under constant scrutiny, Alex turns to sexual fantasy and masturbation as a refuge: “My wang was all I really had that I could call my own,” he tells his therapist. What begins as a mundane aspect of adolescence and puberty gradually devolves into an all-consuming habit, an addiction that grows less satisfying “as if increase of appetite had grown / by what it fed on” (to borrow from Shakespeare). In his own words: “I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off – the sticky evidence is everywhere!” The comparison is genius, both for the comic effect of comparing the guilt of masturbation with the guilt experienced by Dostoevsky’s murderer, and for the aptness of it: its very excess underscores its accuracy. Roth ends the opening chapter with an appeal by Alex to his therapist, and it deserves to be quoted in full for its comic richness and the incredible vitality of Roth’s prose:

Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I’m living it in the middle of a Jewish joke! I am the son in the Jewish joke – only it ain’t no joke! Please, who crippled us like this? Who made us so morbid and hysterical and weak? Why, why are they screaming still, “Watch out! Don’t do it! Alex – no!” and why, alone on my bed in New York, why am I still hopelessly beating my meat? Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution? from the mockery and abused bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years? Oh my secrets, my shame, my palpitations, my flushes, my sweats! The way I respond to the simple vicissitudes of human life! Doctor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz! Enough!

Portnoy explicitly links his and his parents’ neurosis with their Jewishness, and the novel will go on to locate the genesis of this suffering in certain aspects of what he views as the Jewish culture: the dominant mother, imposing her will on the submissive, weak-willed husband (“what a mix-up of the sexes in our house!”); the drive to succeed, to achieve, at all costs, imposed on from above; the simultaneous sense of victimhood and persecution that co-exists, somehow, with a sense of superiority, an incredible jealousy for the Christian majority mixed with condescension for them.

The outrage, the disgust inspired in my parents by the gentiles, was beginning to make some sense: the goyim pretended to be something special, while we were actually their moral superiors. And what made us superior was precisely the hatred and the disrespect they lavished so willingly upon us! […] Only what about the hatred we lavished upon them?

This is perilous territory for anyone to explore, even an acclaimed Jewish writer, and Roth experienced no small amount of vilification and derision for his daring. But that is part of what makes this novel so exceptional, and Roth so important a writer: he has ventured into territory – sexual and psychological – that few other writers can or would attempt, and he has packaged his exploration in one of the 20th century’s funniest novels.