09 July 2010

7. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

I can't believe how long it has taken me to read anything Roth has written. I was so into Goodbye, Columbus that I immediately went to the library and took out Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral. And the hype was definitely worth it.

Portnoy's Complaint is actually a complaint: Alexander Portnoy ranting about his parents to his psychoanalyst. The whole book seems like a first meeting between therapist and patient.

And it is hilarious. I thought Goodbye, Columbus was funny, but that was nothing compared to this. At more than a few points I was actually laughing out loud, laughing so hard I had to put the book down and wipe my eyes.

Alex has grown up to be a successful lawyer working for NYC as a Commissioner of Equality, or something. But, he feels, this is not good enough for his parents. He feels trapped by their expectations of him. They have raised him to be a perfect gentleman, to be so nice, and kind, and polite, but whenever he exercises any free will, makes any decision of his own, they act like he is murdering them with his lack of gratitude. And there's his trap: he wants to be himSelf but he also wants to be a good son (mostly, it seems, to keep the bitching to a quiet minimum).

And mostly he expresses himself in two ways: whacking off (the title of the famous second chapter) and having sex. No woman is ever good enough, physically, socially, emotionally, or culturally (even when he goes to Israel), and so he winds up treating his girlfriends like his parents treat him: carping on them, insulting them, never letting any praise sink in long enough to be felt, if any is to be dished out in the first place.

The end left me a little unsatisfied; it ended kind of abruptly for me. But don't get me wrong, the journey was very satisfactory and I'm looking forward to American Pastoral.


meezly said...

a whole book based on someone ranting about his parents in a hilarious way? sounds right up my alley :-)

I'm new to Roth too, so thanks for the recommendations!

WalkerP said...

Oh you haven't read this, meezly? I think you will really love it, for many reasons. One being that holy crap there is a ton of whacking off in this book. And it is hilarious. But it also really gave me an insight into the east coast jewish mentality, something I had never experienced before I moved to New York (though it turns out I have a big strain of it in my family!). A real eye-opener and definitely entertaining.

Redwing said...

I didn't mention any of the Jewish stuff because I feel like every person I know has to deal with parents who do this kind of praising in public and bashing in private. It's pervaded the culture such that I didn't even feel like this HAD to be a Jewish story. And it was such an eye-opener that I wish I had read it BEFORE I moved to NYC; I would've picked up the current a lot faster if I had at least a little Roth under my keel.

Redwing said...

I also forgot to mention that about halfway through the book I started thinking of this as a more accessible Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: religious guilt, family guilt, lots of sex and the struggle between sexual guilt/shame and desire/happiness, and the bildungsroman - the individual's search for place in a big, wide world that tends to crush the individual.

If I wasn't so hasty to just post something, dammit I would have remembered all that. Must be more patient!