Sunday, February 10, 2019

Portnoy's Complaint (1969)

For better or worse, Portnoy's Complaint is one more artifact from the 20th century that can trace its existence back in essential ways to Hugh Hefner, with certain strains of sexism—and plain ignorance—that never did find a way to accommodate feminism (let alone LGBTQ). "Portnoy's complaint," presented comically as a medical diagnosis to open the novel, is what we would consider today just one more type of compulsive sexual disorder, among those still considered relatively minor (and so of course comically humiliating) only because they don't usually lead to active criminal behavior, and people don't end up required to register as sex offenders everywhere they go for the rest of their lives. I'm not saying the novel isn't funny—it often is and it's always fun to read—but it is already painfully dated, in many ways: its understanding of masturbation disorders, its cheap and obvious turns to Freud and psychotherapy, its juvenile preoccupation with sex, and its aggressive sexism. Philip Roth's barbaric yawp of a career break is best taken as a ride on a roaring and unhinged ranting voice, held in check only for the sake of clarity, which is scrupulously maintained. It's a bravura performance, if you can get past the conceits. It's formally about sexual frustration but also about the frustration of being culturally uprooted in the world, as a Jew. It's also a formal complaint about the human condition, notably mothers (castrating, of course). "THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER I'VE MET," is the name of the first chapter, meaning himself, Alexander Portnoy the narrator. (Portnoy's father is pretty unforgettable too, plagued by chronic constipation and his tedious career as an insurance salesman.) Portnoy's Complaint is a pure distillation of Roth's silken, pulsing voice, which only got better, modulated for better effect, as the march of his novels went steadily forward over the decades. It was the flashpoint for his career, and as with other celebrities at the time—the Beatles, say, or Mia Farrow—he struggled for many years to escape his own long shadow. For most of the '70s he was little more than the guy who wrote the sensational book about some schmuck who masturbated all the time. Over at Modern Library, in 1998, they seemed to think it's the best thing he ever did, but actually, persistence paid off for Roth and he went on to write much greater novels than this odd and only semi-charming novelty. So don't believe the hype, start with American Pastoral—in memory, Sabbath's Theater is my favorite, but I still mean to get back to it as I recall it as devastating too—and if you come to Portnoy's Complaint with low expectations you might even have a nice surprise in store.

In case it's not at the library.

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