Sunday, February 19, 2012

5. Portnoy's Complaint

By Philip Roth

It was Redwing’s enthusiastic review that got me interested in seeking out Portnoy’s Complaint, and sometime last summer, when we were browsing at our fave thriftshop, Olman found me a cheap paperback copy. So even if I haven’t progressed much with the Aubrey-Maturin series, at least I have read one recommendation from Redwing this year.

As Olman pointed out, Portnoy’s Complaint provides some eye-opening insight into the East Coast Jewish mentality. Although this is my first Philip Roth book, I’ve read a few books by Mordecai Richler, who definitely treads similar ground. The only difference is that no Jewish cumming-of-age story has been as over-the-top as this one!

I also agree with Redwing that anyone who reads this book will relate to the universal struggles of growing up under parental expectations, the clash of New World versus Old World values between different generations and trying to find some (sexual) liberation from familial guilt. Many of these issues are not just specific to being Jewish in modern America. Growing up with immigrant parents from ANY culture has probably resulted in a whole generation of sexually stunted and psychologically doomed North Americans. Certainly my own Chinese parents have had both an oppressive and repressive effect on my childhood where I simply longed to fit in with my more liberal white friends.

What makes Portnoy’s Complaint uniquely Jewish is in its execution and style:  Roth's brilliant use of idiom and wordplay (“LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!"), the neurotic sense of humour, and over-dramatic expressionism. That, and the explicit (and still quite shocking) sexual content, makes for an incredibly entertaining read.

Another personal eye-opening discovery was this:  for the longest time, I had thought that the "wanking with the raw liver and subsequent consumption of said liver at the family dinner" scene from the well-regarded 1993 Quebec film, Leolo, was completely original!  Now I know that the film was inspired by (if not ripping off) Portnoy’s Complaint which was written fifteen years before!

Although I enjoyed many aspects of this very funny novel, in the end it was not completely my cup of tea. True, Alexander Portnoy is a sym-pathetic character (“why, alone on my bed in New York, why am I still hopelessly beating my meat?"), but he still be a little hard to take in large doses. For me, the plot line was at times as “circuitous as a string of wasted 50-minute hours”! (from this interesting 1969 NYT review). Like with the constant use of ALL CAPS, it was difficult to lose myself in a narrative where the text is riddled with exclamation marks! Reading so many pages of hyper-neurotic, masculine whining left me feeling rather anxious and tense!! I found that I had to take frequent breaks from Portnoy’s rants and read something more calming!

As a fairly open-minded female reader, I enjoy explicit content in my fiction from time to time, but even I found the racism, sexism and misogyny quite tasteless and dated at times. But I also recognize that if any offensive content became excised it would also castrate the potency of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Now was THAT a clever Freudian metaphor or vat?!


Here’s an article I came across recently about Roth’s merit as a great writer. I think the critic makes some very valid points, though interestingly, she is also female. It’d be worthwhile knowing if there are any male readers who have a similar opinion on the matter.

1 comment:

OlmanFeelyus said...

When I lived in New York, I learned that there are actually quite a few Jewish people from that region who still think and act very much like the protagonist from Portnoy's Complaint. It was something I didn't quite believe in until then, thinking of it as a big stereotype. Reading Portnoy helped me to understand its cultural roots better.